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Wounded Soldiers Leave Afghanistan on Their Terms

BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan - Deployed service members often fantasize about the end of their combat tours, when they pack their bags and walk aboard the aircraft that will take them to loved ones patiently awaiting their return. However, combat often comes with a price and not everyone gets to return the way they hope.

Six wounded Soldiers arrived at Bagram Air Field May 28, as participants of Operation Proper Exit, a Troops First Foundation initiative founded by Rick Kell, to allow Wounded Warriors a chance to return to the battlefield and not only reunite with their battle buddies, but also to tackle the demons left behind and leave on their own terms.

The Wounded Warriors — Sgt. 1st Class Joshua Olson, retired Sgt. Saul Martinez, retired Sgt. Brendan Marrocco, retired Sgt. Joshua Ben, Staff Sgt. Jose Navarro, retired Sgt. Maj. Cole Rich, along with escorts Kell, retired Command Sgt. Maj. Thomas Capel and Mike Marrocco, Brendan’s brother—spent five days traveling throughout Afghanistan. Hundreds of applauding service members eager to shake their hands and hear their stories greeted them at every stop.

“I spend as much time as I can at Walter Reed (Medical Center) trying to build relationships with warriors,” said Kell. “Early on there was a group of amputees who knew that I had taken professional athletes over to Iraq to support the troops. They kept asking me to take them back. Finally, I realized they were serious and that the reason they wanted to go back wasn’t to get the bad guys, they knew they weren’t in any position to do that, but because they wanted to go back and continue being part of the force.”

When the program first launched in June 2009, Kell said the strategy and focus was to bring the warriors back to the places they were injured. 

“We focused a lot on the geography,” he said. “But I’ve learned over a period of time that it’s not about geography, it’s about brotherhood. These warriors want to come back and spend time with other Soldiers.”

Olson, Marrocco and Martinez were injured in Iraq and were in Afghanistan for the first time.

Marrocco, a native of Staten Island, N.Y., said during his deployment to Baiji, Iraq in 2009 with 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Inf. Division, his unit was notified they would be deployed to Afghanistan for their next rotation and they were all excited to share the experience together. But shortly after the news, a projectile ripped through the door of Marrocco’s truck taking both of his legs and arms, severing his carotid artery and damaging his left eye. He survived the blast and became the first quadruple amputee in the military.

He spent two years at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center recovering, then returned in 2012 after he received a double arm transplant. By the time he was healthy enough to participate in the program, troops were no longer in Iraq.

“Rick asked me to come to Afghanistan with him and I couldn’t turn it down,” Marrocco said. “I miss the Army so much I’ve wanted to go back ever since. I retired but I wasn’t really happy about that. I felt that essentially my career had been ripped away from me. So to be able to come back and put a uniform back on has been a big thing for me. To ride around in helicopters again and get to visit Soldiers makes me feel like I am still there. It may just be for a week, but it’s so helpful to close that book.”

Martinez, a native of Bloomington, Calif., who now resides in Bozeman Mt., served in Salman Pak, Iraq, in 2007 with 3rd Heavy Bde. Combat Team, 3rd Inf. Div. He was in the lead vehicle of a convoy when they were hit with a projectile, killing his buddies Sgt. Blake Stevens and Spc. Kyle Little. As a result, Martinez became a bilateral amputee with massive tissue loss on his back and traumatic brain injury.

In 2011, Operation Proper Exit gave Martinez the opportunity to go back to Iraq. 

“It was really at a time when I felt I needed the closure,” Martinez said. “I needed to see the area and see what the country had become over the past four years since we had been hit. It gave me closure and fulfilled gaps in my life that I didn’t know were empty. Being in the area, I could see a tremendous difference and it made me feel like Blake and Kyle’s sacrifice wasn’t for nothing.” 

When Martinez was first told about the program it took him two weeks to bring the idea to his wife. 

“When I told her, she met me with a little bit of apprehension because of the devastation she associated with that country,” Martinez said. “Seeing me laying in a hospital bed in a coma missing my legs… there are very few people who can overcome seeing the one they love in that condition.” He said his wife pondered on it for two days before agreeing to see him off to Iraq.

“The next two months was a roller coaster of emotions,” he said. “It was a mixed sense of relief, fear, anxiety, and happiness.”

Martinez was asked to come to Afghanistan with the possibility of linking up with an old friend, and as a mentor for those going through the experience for the first time. 

“Coming here with a fresh start, but at the same time knowing all of the loss and heartbreak that’s been experienced here, I tried to think of how best to make this trip as a mentor for the other guys,” he said. “But I didn’t know how much I really needed this trip until I was here. It’s been very therapeutic and beneficial and I wasn’t anticipating that.”

Olson, a native of Spokane, Wash., was serving in Tal Afar, Iraq, 101st Airborne Div., in October 2003 when his vehicle was ambushed. He was hit with a rocket-propelled grenade resulting in the loss of his right leg from the hip down. He spent 18 months at Walter Reed and while there, tried out for the Army Marksmanship Unit. 

Olson is still serving today as a marksmanship instructor and competitor in the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit located at Fort Benning, Ga., and was nominated for the London 2012 Paralympic Games. He has been a participant in Operation Proper Exit since the beginning and, Kell said, is an essential mentor to the program.

“I’ve gotten the most out of being a mentor on these trips and watching these other guys go through the process,” Olson said. “Being there for them, I’ve watched them take off a giant ruck sack of what ifs, pain, hatred, and everything else, set it down and walk away from it.”

Olson said that since his injury, setting goals has been imperative to his resilience and success. 

“When I was in the hospital, all I wanted to do was be standing on my prosthetic when the guys got off the bird at Fort Campbell,” Olson said. “I told them that, so for three months that’s all I did in physical therapy was get strong enough to stand up to be there when they got home.”

Navarro and Ben’s first deployment to Afghanistan with the 4th Bn., 73rd Cavalry Reg., 82nd Airborne Div., was cut short when their platoon was ambushed in Afghanistan’s Jalrez Valley in 2007. AK-47 rounds tore through the sky while armored piercing RPG’s shredded through their armored Humvees. In the end, Ben spent 16 months at Walter Reed healing from multiple gunshot wounds and the loss of his right leg. Navarro, burned on more than 35 percent of his body, with shrapnel in his left leg and a gunshot wound to his torso, spent more than 5 years at the hospital and as of today has undergone more than 160 surgeries.

Ben, a native of Sturgeon, Mo., participated in Operation Proper Exit Afghanistan in 2013, and said that before returning, he felt a lot of animosity towards Afghanistan. However, returning and seeing the progress changed his outlook. 

“The first time, it was really emotional coming back. The place I was injured was still pretty hot so we couldn’t get really close to it,” Ben said. “But the pilots flew over the valley and circled it so we could see the area. It was different because the last time I saw that place I was laying on the ground in pain and this time I was above it. I could see it in a different light.”

Ben came back this time to support his friend Navarro.

“I had it pretty easy compared to him. I thought if I could come back with him, I could at least be by his side,” Ben said.

Navarro, a native of Pomona, Calif., said he was very skeptical about the journey at first and doesn’t often like to talk about his injuries. However, the genuine interest and support of the troops, as well as experiencing it with the other Wounded Warriors has changed his outlook.

“I remember seeing Sgt. Marrocco in 2009 as a quad amputee at Walter Reed. And then the other day I see this dude shooting a mini gun…with hands! That blew my mind to see that. My road’s been hard but not compared to some of the things that I’ve seen,” Navarro said.

Retired Sgt. Maj. Cole Rich, native of New Boston, Mass. was serving as a first sergeant in 1st Brigade., 82nd Airborne Div., at Fire Base Shin near the Pakistani border in Dec. 2002. He was on a patrol when a 7.62x54mm round struck the back of his head, pushing bone fragments into the visual cortex of his brain. He spent the past 12 years recovering and is now partially blind and suffers from a severe seizure disorder.

Capel, who was the sergeant major at the time, was sitting in the headquarters building at Camp Salerno when he heard the call that 

Rich had been shot.

“First thing Rich said when he got off the medevac in Salerno was, ‘Sergeant major, don’t let them send me home. I don’t want to go home.’ What do you say when you have a great first sergeant with a gunshot wound to the head, lost vision, and still wants to stay on the battlefield?” said Capel. “I told the bird to bandage him up and take him to Bagram. That was the last I saw of him until I returned home a few months later.”

Rich had just undergone brain surgery when Capel approached him about the idea of returning to Afghanistan with Operation Proper Exit.

“I didn’t even think twice,” Rich said. “It’s good to be surrounded by troops again. I miss the military and didn’t get to finish my career; I wanted more. I’ve met a lot of great people here. This is a very good program, even for an old crusty sergeant major.”

Regardless of their injuries, each Wounded Warrior has gone through years of recovery. All of them agree that the antidote that has got them where they are today is the love and support of their Family, leadership, and friends, and the bonds that are built among those who fight with them. 

“I am so lucky and proud today that I’ve been given the opportunity to escort these heroes back to the battlefield,” Capel said, “so that we can take them off the battlefield, not on a stretcher, not on a medevac… they are going to walk with me to the aircraft and we are going to get on and we’re going to exit back to the United States of America.”

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