Thu December 16, 2010

Seeking To Heal, Wounded Warriors Return To Iraq

Retired Marine Cpl. Michael Campbell's voice wavers, each word is stuttered out with difficulty, but his intentions are clear.

"I would do it again in a heartbeat, if I could," he tells soldiers at Camp Liberty, the massive U.S. military base south of Baghdad.

It is the first time the 28-year-old from Pineville, La., has been back to Iraq since he sustained traumatic injuries that left him mute for two years. He and six other wounded vets are revisiting the battlefield in an unprecedented experimental program called Operation Proper Exit.

When soldiers sustain traumatic injuries, the psychological damage may be the hardest to repair. This program is designed to heal the deepest wounds by providing veterans with a week in Iraq, which includes a visit to the place where they sustained the injuries that dramatically changed their lives

Soldiers Sharing Their Stories

The welcome begins in the halls of an Iraqi palace -- one of Saddam's headquarters, now Camp Liberty. The guests arrive in VIP style, business class for the long flight over, then black SUVs deliver them to the palace curbside. It is a short walk to the thundering applause of hundreds of men and women in uniform who have come to honor them.

"It's weird," says Campbell, as he forces the words out one by one. "No gun with me. I kind of feel naked without a rifle."

The wounded vets walk on stage under their own power, the prosthetic limbs unseen under baggy uniforms and desert boots. Even in their short time together, these men help to steady those who are still learning to walk again.

Retired Army Spc. Derek Bradshaw has a deep scar across his skull from ear to ear. He explains that the scar comes from operations after his injuries in Iraq, when doctors fitted plates to hold his face together.

"It was a vehicle accident," he explains, a military vehicle that overturned after an attack. "Traumatic brain injury, broke my left arm pretty bad, a few facial fractures, unconscious," says Bradshaw, describing his condition in 2004 when he left Iraq. He is in the process of trying to re-enlist.

"The acceptance has been phenomenal," he says of wounded vets who still want to serve.

Joseph James, a 28-year-old retired Army sergeant first class, was anxious at first to be in a place he left in agony after he was injured by an IED on April 8, 2008. This week, he will return to the place where he was hit -- the hardest duty, but the one that could bring the most relief.

"I can go to the site where I almost died, and I can say, you know what, this is the start of a new life," says Joseph. "I can close that old chapter out and not hold the baggage of the past. I can take my retirement with a lighter heart."

They tell their stories, one by one, to a crowded room of active duty soldiers. Afterward, the troops line up for handshakes and emotional backslaps.

Helping The Healing

The idea for the program came from wounded veterans themselves. Rick Kell, who volunteers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and runs a foundation called Troops First, helped make it happen. He won approval from the military command and the Army's surgeon general.

"I've seen 49 men change in front of my eyes, the week that they were here," says Kell. "I've received letters from wives thanking me for bringing their husbands back from Iraq after they had already been home for two years."

Kell takes part in every trip and helps pick the participants. He chooses those who have already made progress in coming to terms with the change in their lives, both physical and psychological.

"A warrior who is thriving, who can move past their injury with school, family, career -- that is primary," he says.

There are no medical studies on the healing properties of revisiting battlegrounds, but veterans have been organizing trips for generations, from World War I to Vietnam. Iraq is different because it is still a conflict zone, and Kell can't say for certain if the program can continue after U.S. troops withdraw next year.

Getting A Second Chance

Alexander Reyes, 25, a retired Army sergeant from Miami, recalls his war story.

"The IED was buried right underneath my feet where I was walking. When they detonated, I thought I was dead. But thank God, I survived, and I have a second chance in life," Reyes says.

His "second chance" is underlined by a reunion with his younger brother, now stationed in Iraq.

"I can finally move on," Reyes says. "The first step is to accept your new way of life."

For him, the bigger surprise is the dramatic changes in a country at war when he left.

"We could see that it's not in vain, because back in 2006 and 2007, you have to live with the high security level, the uneasiness. Now, I could finally relax," Reyes says.

On their first day back in the country, they are beginning to relax. After the fanfare in the palace hall, these seven men sit down with Lt. Gen. Robert W. Cone, commanding general for U.S. operations in Iraq, III Corps commander. He has seen his share of veterans who will need care for the rest of their lives.

"It is a lifetime responsibility that we have taken on," Cone says. "They trust us, and we don't want to let them down." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.