SOUTHWEST ASIA -- Usually when a wounded Airman, Soldier, Sailor or Marine or Airman leaves the combat theater, they leave on a stretcher, surrounded by the beeps and hum of machines reading and reporting vital signs. Sometimes they are conscious, but all too often they are not -- suddenly waking in a hospital thousands of miles away from the last step they remember taking. For some of these wounded warriors, the path to recovery is long and twisting, requiring them to confront physical and mental challenges far beyond those they faced in war. One of the most debilitating of these can be the guilt of leaving behind their comrades to continue the mission without them. The Airmen of the U.S. Air Forces Central Command Combined Air and Space Operations Center Air Mobility Division recently had an opportunity to help alleviate some of those feelings by arranging intratheater travel for some of these wounded warriors as they returned to the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility.
The goal -- to see their fellow servicemembers, and leave again, walking to the aircraft and climbing the ramp under their own volition and on their own terms as part of Operation Proper Exit. The air mobility division makes sure that once the Operation Proper Exit participants arrive at an AFCENT travel hub, they are able to move on to the next stop on their tour without delay.
"Once the wounded warriors arrive in theater, AMD will look for opportune airlift to transport them on," said Lt. Col. Michael Morman, the AMD deputy chief. As with any military airlift, things don't always work out and when that happens, the AMD section works hard to find solutions. "If opportunity is not available, we will dedicate a mission to support them," Morman said. "We keep a close watch to make sure they are getting the best care and try to limit the amount of loading and unloading from aircraft they need to do." This is the second trip for OPE in recent months.
The group members, all injured in Afghanistan, traveled to several places that played key roles in their deployed lives such as Kandahar Airfield, Forward Operating Base Shank, Camp Leatherneck and New Kabul Compound. While the Soldiers and Marines on this trip may see how operations in theater have moved forward and how their contributions played a role in that, they may not be aware that their presence may also help those serving in that area today. According to the Operation Proper Exit section of the Feherty's Troops First Foundation website, the founding organization of OPE, the trips can have a positive impact on not just the returning warriors, but also on those currently deployed. "Soldiers who have witnessed the injuring of a battle buddy are often times left wondering how the situation turned out both short and long term," reads the website. "Upon the return of fully recovered Soldiers, the minds of deployed troops are put to ease when they witness the results firsthand and hear about the journey and outstanding care being afforded to our wounded warriors." The Airmen of the AMD recognize the impact their small part plays in the rehabilitation of wounded warriors and the reassurances of the military men and women who face the risks every day. "It's been a humbling experience to know our mobility efforts have such an impact on the men and women there, and to know that we are helping these warriors, their families and fellow service members cope with the emotional effects of their injuries," Morman said. When the Soldiers and Marines on this trip board the aircraft to leave again, it will be by their choice. Instead of beeps and hums, they will hear the steady rumble of aircraft engines taking them home. And most of all, they will know for sure that this time, they've left Afghanistan a better place.