Eight wounded service members returned to Afghanistan April 3 as part of the 24th iteration of Operation Proper Exit to bring a message of hope and resiliency to soldiers deployed here. The event facilitated frank discussions about the best outcomes for some of the worst injuries soldiers face.
The panel discussion addressed post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide prevention, Department of Veterans Affairs services and rehabilitation. It also allowed the audience to discover how to interact with brothers in arms who have lost limbs, been shot multiple times or struggled through anxiety and depression after returning home from combat. An initiative of the Troops First Foundation, OPE seeks wounded service members who are thriving in recovery and are capable of returning to theater so that they may leave on their own terms.
“It’s a distinct honor and privilege to be able to host you today,” said Army Brig. Gen. Stephen Radulski, the 28th Infantry Division deputy commander for operations, as he welcomed the group to a gymnasium on post. “You’re on a journey of discovery and closure and we’re proud to be a part of that process. I hope you find the healing you seek.”
The Pennsylvania Army National Guard’s 28th Infantry Division’s headquarters battalion hosted the first stop of the group’s weeklong tour through the Middle East and Afghanistan. Eight soldiers from the battalion were paired with wounded troops to serve as sponsors during their stay.
“I believe in what they’re doing here. I believe it’s helpful,” said Army Staff Sgt. Mark Milanovich, a sponsor from the 28th Infantry Division’s Headquarters Support Company. “It shows a lot of courage for these guys to do this. It’s an honor to be one of the sponsors. There’s so much you can learn from these guys.”
Another sponsor, Army Staff Sgt. Russell Blankenship with the company’s chaplain section, said he worried that meeting his assigned soldier would be awkward. But that proved not to be the case.
“These wounded warriors have big personalities. They make fun of themselves a lot. They’re pretty open about their injuries,” Blankenship said. “I thought being a sponsor would be a good opportunity to help soldiers, as part of our unit ministry team. And I thought it would be a good experience to see what they’ve gone through and maybe make me be better able to help soldiers later.”
OPE participants have the opportunity to return to the medical facility where they were treated, if not the actual site of their combat injury. The meet-and-greet events at various forward operating bases give currently deployed soldiers an opportunity to honor them and hear their stories. For most participants, it’s a final opportunity to put on the uniform, though some wounded soldiers are able to remain in the service through programs such as the Army’s Continuation on Active Duty program.
“When I lost my arm in 2008, I thought my career was over; I actually reenlisted and stayed active duty for five more years,” said Medal of Honor recipient retired Army Master Sgt. Leroy Petry. He was shot through the thighs and had his right arm severed below the elbow in Afghanistan in 2008 when an enemy grenade exploded in his hand as he attempted to throw it away. He now works as a military liaison for the Troops First Foundation and travels with OPE groups.
Staying In the Fight
Many of this group saw action at the height of fighting in Afghanistan. Army Sgt. Jonathan Harmon is among them. On June 7, 2012, a pressure plate-activated improvised explosive device mangled his lower body, causing a double above-the-knee amputation.
Standing near the entrance of the gym with other soldiers before the start of the event, his injuries are not obvious. Then he taps on his leg and the sound is metallic.
Like many wounded troops, his injuries don’t keep him from pursuing physical activities. He is a powerlifter who has a goal of pursuing a degree in nutrition, as well as building a house and having children.
“I’m really humbled and appreciative of you coming out and supporting us and Operation Proper Exit,” Harmon told the audience.
He also has a goal to get promoted. After a lengthy rehab, he took an assignment as a liaison at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions.
“Don’t let your injury define you,” Harmon said. “I reached a point during my medical board where I realized I wasn’t ready to not put on the uniform every day.”
‘I Shouldn’t Be Here Right Now’
Wounded Warriors share common experiences, such as coma, multiple surgeries and years of physical therapy. They’ve had to move through some dark places to learn to accept the support of caregivers.
Retired Army Spc. Justin Lane is one of those who had a long road ahead of him. An IED explosion in Afghanistan July 2-3, 2011, caused a double leg amputation. When he came out of a coma his future included 28 surgeries. He and several others credited their faith for getting them to where they are now. The warriors also said part of their recovery process was to find a purpose, be it furthering their education or finding employment in a field they love.
“I got prosthetics and I learned to walk again,” says Lane, whose identity now includes being the only double amputee who is the lead singer of a band. “Every day is a blessing from God. I shouldn’t be here right now.”
Some of the wounded soldiers are quick to show people their prosthetics, which feature the latest electronics and design technology. But some of this group’s participants have wounds that don’t show.
Retired Army Staff Sgt. Jaymes Poling deployed three times to Afghanistan and was engaged in multiple firefights. His story is that he always wanted to be a soldier and to see action.
“I always wanted to fight,” he says, but processing the carnage and the death of friends -- on the battlefield and back home -- hardened him and made him suicidal.
“That toughness turned me into being callous to the people around me,” Poling said.
He said the key for him was to find a process through PTSD. Today he writes about veteran issues and is co-founder of a nonprofit that generates dialogue between civilian and veteran communities.
Navy Cmdr. (Dr.) William Danchanko also participated in the OPE program because of PTSD. In his years as a caregiver in Afghanistan at a Role Three Multinational Medical Unit, -- a trauma center -- he treated soldiers, enemy combatants and civilians, including children. He says he struggled to come to terms with what he saw. He encouraged soldiers to lean on each other for support and to not be afraid to seek help.
“Everybody’s been dealt a hand. Everyone is fighting a battle. Some of it is more public … some fight it internally,” Danchanko said. “The things you are doing matter. Support each other.”
One of the most common questions asked of the soldiers is if people treat them differently because of their experiences. Petry and others on the panel said they welcome opportunities to educate people.
“We don’t want anyone to feel sorry for us,” Harmon said. “I lost my legs doing exactly what I always wanted to do my whole life, and that was being an airborne infantryman.”