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Wounded Warriors Return to Iraq

American Forces Press Service

JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq, June 29, 2009 – Six wounded soldiers, all amputees, returned here last week hoping to close the door on the combat that changed them forever.

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Left to right; U.S. Army Sgt. Robert Brown, retired Staff Sgt. Bradley Gruetzner, and Sgt. Christopher A. Burrell, soldiers wounded in combat while deployed to Iraq, walk through “Hero’s Highway” at Air Force Theater Hospital before returning to Camp Victory after a visit to Joint Base Balad, Iraq, June 25, 2009. Brown, Gruetner, Burrell, and four other soldiers had the opportunity to return to Iraq and to visit the places they once served. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Brian A. Barbour

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

The last time Sgt. Christopher A. Burrell was in Iraq, he was pulled from a burning vehicle in Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood. A tourniquet applied by another soldier saved his life, but a nurse here at the Air Force Theater Hospital had to break the tragic news—his left leg was gone, taken by an explosively formed projectile.

Now, almost a year and a half later, and after months of rehabilitation and physical therapy at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., Burrell returned to Iraq with five other amputee combat veterans as part of Operation Proper Exit.

”I don’t remember much, but I remember my nurse,” Burrell said. ”Shelly. She was an angel, there to comfort me when I was in a difficult spot.“

Operation Proper Exit, a United Service Organizations pilot program sponsored by the Army and the Troops First Foundation, allows soldiers wounded in combat to return to Iraq. The goal of the program is to give the soldiers an opportunity for closure, and to see the progress made in securing and stabilizing the country, Burrell said.

”It kind of helps you heal mentally and emotionally, to close that chapter in your life so you can move on,” he said. ”The progress that’s been made—it shows that we made a sacrifice but it was for a reason.”

The six veterans, who were accompanied by civilians with the Troops First Foundation, toured the Air Force theater hospital here, speaking with medical personnel. Most of the soldiers received some kind of treatment at the hospital before they moved to Germany for further medical care.

Air Force Staff Sgt. Jamal Hogan, a nurse here, said he remembers providing medical care for two of the soldiers during a previous deployment in 2007.

”It’s awesome,” he said, hugging one of his former patients, ”to know that people made it—he’s alive, walking around. That means a lot to me.”

Following the hospital tour, the veterans participated in a town hall-style meeting, which began with a standing ovation by about 200 soldiers at a Morale, Welfare, and Recreation facility here.

After telling the audience their personal war stories, the veterans fielded questions ranging from how they dealt with physical recovery to post traumatic stress disorder to their long-term goals.

Sgt. Robert Brown, who lost his right leg to sniper fire in September 2006 in Ramadi, Iraq, said he is training to qualify for the U.S. rowing team at the 2012 Paralympic games in London.

Near the end of the meeting, a young soldier stood up and asked them, with everything they’ve experienced, if they would be willing to return for another tour in Afghanistan or Iraq.

All six nodded.

”Sure, we’d go back,” one said. “We’re here with you right now, aren’t we?”

(From a 3rd Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) public affairs news release.)

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Multinational Corps Iraq

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