Saturday, November 19, 2016

Kabul: Operation Proper Exit


That was my first impression when we were asked to line up along a red carpet waving miniature American flags.  When the wounded warriors entered the room to thunderous applause and strode the 30 meters to the stage, however, I changed my tune.  Despite the cheering and clapping, I felt a lump in my throat as the delegation passed.  The columns of waving flags weren’t cheesy after all; they were a perfect tribute.

rolling out the red carpet for good reason

In total, six servicemen and -women joined us as part of Operation Proper Exit – a program run by Feherty’s Troops First Foundation that allows wounded warriors to return to the place of their injury and leave the country on their own terms.  Most of those who came to speak to us did not remember leaving Afghanistan the first time due to the trauma they had endured.  Some had spent months in medically-induced comas.

After the grand entrance, a few of the Operation Proper Exit organizers gave some remarks as did the Embassy’s deputy ambassador.  Then the guests of honor each took a turn at the mic.

First up was MSG Leroy Petry, U.S. Army, who in 2008 was shot multiple times and lost his right hand while attempting to throw a grenade away from his position.  His actions saved two fellow soldiers.

Next was MSG Neal Benson, U.S. Army, who sustained severe facial and head injuries from an improvised explosive device (IED) in Kajaki in 2007.  A significant portion of his skull was reconstructed from titanium plates.

There was MSG Raymond Castillo, U.S. Army, who lost both legs and suffered organ damage also from an IED, and SCPO Ren Hockenberry, U.S. Navy, who was involved in a green-on-blue attack, whereby an Afghan soldier, supposedly a “friendly,” fired on her group.  She was shot twice in the stomach, once in the groin, and twice in the leg, shattering her tibia.  She still requires the use of a cane.

SSG Earl Granville, U.S. Army, lost his left leg to a roadside bomb in 2007, and last but not least, SSG James Fitzgerald, U.S. Army, was shot in the right leg and knocked down a ravine, fracturing his knee and femur in the process, while in a firefight in northern Afghanistan in 2010.

All of the wounded warriors had received the Purple Heart, and in addition, Petry was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Obama.

While I think one of the guests was medically retired following his injuries, most returned to active duty after months, and in many cases years, of surgeries and rehabilitation.  Leaving their units behind was the hardest part of being injured, most of them agreed.

Some of the warriors approached the Embassy event with humor, and others were more serious.  Some were emotional, and some were nostalgic.  There were recurring themes throughout, though.

First, most of them downplayed their injuries, noting that they were the lucky ones.  All of them had seen buddies and colleagues killed in battle, often in the same incident that had resulted in their own injuries, and they all took the time to reflect on this ultimate sacrifice.

Second, all of them were exceedingly gracious and humble.  We were here to honor these heroes, but one after the next, they took the podium and thanked us for coming out to see them, for taking time out of our busy schedules.  They thanked us for supporting the troops, for working in harm’s way, and for striving to develop Afghanistan.

Lastly, in what came as a bit of a surprise to me, no one seemed to bear any ill will toward Afghanistan, and most expressed hope for the country’s future.  As SCPO Hockenberry put it, “A few bad apples don’t spoil the bunch.”

All the while, I was thinking about my older sister who had served two tours as a trauma surgeon at the military hospital at Bagram Air Base.  She had patched up dozens of injured military personnel, and had possibly played a role in saving the life of someone standing on the stage before me.  It was a humbling notion.

After the presentation, the wounded warriors formed a receiving line, and we all lined up to shake their hands.

I’ve heard it said when people face catastrophic injury or illness, their pre-injury personalities are often magnified by the experience.  Negative people come out with bitterness and bile, while positive people emerge with gratitude and optimism.  With this group, the latter definitely seemed to be the case.

The receiving line was moving slowly, so I had three or four minutes to talk with each guest.  SSG Fitzgerald and I both hail from Tennessee, so we chatted about that.  I talked with SCPO Hockenberry about Hawaii, her home state and current duty station and one of my favorite holiday destinations.  Everyone was interested in my life in Kabul and my career in the Foreign Service, and I was keen to hear the details of the rest of their trip.  We were toward the end of their two-week tour through Afghanistan, so they had already seen and done quite a bit.

The event took place on a Saturday – “Casual Saturday” to be precise – and I was wearing a Hawaiian shirt as I’ve done the past 13 years.  This didn’t go unnoticed, and it was unanimously agreed by the warriors that it was the best shirt ever.  MSG Benson even proposed we trade shirts, but, alas, he and I were clearly not the same size.

Last in the line-up for hand-shaking was MSG Petry.

“I’ve seen your story on AFN [the Armed Forces Network],” I told him.

The network routinely airs clips featuring Medal-of-Honor recipients.

“Oh, geez,” he remarked, “I’m not sure how I feel about being an AFN celebrity.”

“I guess it’s better than being the guy with alcohol poisoning in the public service announcement,” I replied.

We both laughed, and he gave me a fist-bump with his prosthetic hand.