Operation Proper Exit Continues to Provide Healing and Closure

Retired U.S. Army 1st Lt. Edwin Salau and seven other wounded warriors speak, as part of Operation Proper Exit, to an audience of U.S. Soldiers, stationed at Camp Ramadi, Iraq, Oct. 15, 2009. Operation Proper Exit is a therapeutic program that brings injured Soldiers seeking a sense of closure, back to the place they were injured. Salau was injured by a rocket-propelled grenade and small arms fire, Nov. 2004 and lost his left leg. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Michael J. MacLeod/Released)

Operation Proper Exit is a groundbreaking program that affords wounded Troops and veterans from around the US to retrace the last steps they took before being injured.  Sponsored by Troops First Foundation and The USO, Operation Proper Exit finished its fourth tour in April and the fifth group is out right now.

As reported by NBC Chicago, the current crop of soldiers is accompanied by the Union League of Chicago’s COO Jonathan McCabe, who is using a Facebook page to provide updates on the mission.  One participant is Staff Sgt. Brian Beem, who had the lower part of his right leg amputated after being injured in Baghdad in 2006.  Like most of the men, Beem seeks a sense of closure from the experience: “I’d like to see (if) the efforts put forth actually did something and be able to hear from other soldiers, whether or not things are better or things are worse,” Beem told CBS affiliate KTVA. “I’d like to be able to see some kind of end product for what we did.”

We hope his experience will be like that of Sergeant (Ret.) Juan Arredondo who, on last month’s trip, reunited with former colleague Command Sergeant Major Robinson.  “Sgt. Arredondo and I were deployed to Korea and Iraq together. I remember when he was injured. Seeing him today makes me feel some sadness, but also joy at the same time. He is here, in Iraq, standing,” said the command sergeant major to Spc. Crystal M. O’Neal.

“I’ll never forget when we redeployed, and he met me and the other guys getting off the plane. We were so happy to see him there, recovered,” he said. “Moments like that and this one, today, are priceless.”

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Peace in the Heart

Today we present the first of what we hope will be many guest blogs for the USO.  Our aim is to bring you compelling stories that might not otherwise be told and hope you’ll share them with others…

Peace in the Heart
by Tom Sileo, The Unknown Soldiers

Finally back home after a difficult combat tour in Iraq, 1st Lt. Jim Kirchner sat in a busy TGI Friday’s restaurant with his wife.  While the wounded veteran was happy to be spending time with his family, something was clearly bothering him.  Sissy Kirchner offered a penny for her husband’s thoughts.

“I have to get healed up so I can get back over there,” Jim responded.

Shocked by his answer, Sissy took a moment to regain composure.  Why would her husband want to return to the war-torn country that he barely escaped alive?  After all, Jim still carried a piece of Iraq with him, in the form of shrapnel embedded inside his heart.  1st Lt. Kirchner said that in order to be sure his ordeal had true meaning, he had to see it for himself.

“I wanted to leave the war back in Iraq and not bring it home with me,” he said, while explaining his post-deployment mindset.

A few months later, Sissy read an online article about Operation Proper Exit, the new program funded by the USO and executed by the Troops First Foundation.  The idea was both powerful and creative: give wounded heroes a chance at closure by taking them back to war zones that have left physical and emotional scars.  She immediately forwarded the story to Jim, knowing he would jump at the opportunity.  After speaking with Rick Kell, the program mastermind and Troops First Foundation president, Kirchner later found out he would be returning to Iraq in December 2009, with the third group of wounded veterans to make the emotional voyage.

A little over four years earlier, 1st Lt. Kirchner sat in a guard tower at Forward Operating Base St. Michael, during one of the most difficult periods of the Iraq war.  He was in Mahmudiyah, an area south of Baghdad commonly referred to by troops serving there as the “triangle of death.”  There was intelligence indicating an imminent attack by terrorists, and the soldier was ready for action.  Worried about his safety but driven by his sense of duty, Jim put his fears aside and manned his post.

“If it wasn’t me in that tower, it would have been somebody else,” Kirchner said.  “You serve for the men or women beside you.”

Jim was moderately surprised that there were no attacks, and retired to an Army tent to get some sleep before a patrol set to begin in a few hours.  As he tossed and turned while trying to shake off the adrenaline that built up in the guard tower, the soldier flipped over his pillow and reversed his position on the bed.  A few moments later, Kirchner heard a massive booming sound, then felt a strange numbness.  He knew he had been hit.

Shrapnel from a mortar had torn into Jim’s back, from his head all the way down to his knees.  A shoulder and elbow were blown out, and he later found out a lung had collapsed.  There was damage to his liver, pancreas, and heart, and prospects of survival seemed dim.  Due to incredibly dangerous conditions on the ground, flying the badly injured soldier out of FOB St. Michael would be next to impossible, so a risky ambulance ride to the nearest hospital was the only option.  Kirchner, knowing that terrorists would not hesitate to attack a medical caravan, thought he and everyone else in the ambulance would surely be killed.

When Jim miraculously arrived at Camp Anaconda, doctors told him he “probably wasn’t going to make it.”  Before losing consciousness, he remembers being asked if he would like to be read his last rites, while “surrounded by guys pumping blood” into his weakening body.  After pulling through in Iraq, Kirchner was flown to Germany, where he said the process was repeated all over again after his condition worsened.  After several surgeries at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center and then Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the wounded veteran was told he would survive.  He was left with scars, no feeling in half an arm, constant pain, and a permanent reminder of his near-death experience whenever he saw an x-ray of his heart.

The way Rick Kell saw it, Kirchner was a perfect candidate for Operation Proper Exit.  While retired from the Army and still struggling with the demons of war, Jim had demonstrated that he wanted to move forward as a husband, father, and private American citizen.  Kell, his Troops First Foundation, the USO, and top military officials like Gen. Ray Odierno and Col. David Sutherland had worked tirelessly to give heroes like Jim this unique chance at closure.

“On these trips, I have seen 18 people change physically in front of my eyes,” Kell said.  “To simply tell you that does not do it justice.”

1st Lt. Kirchner on the base where he nearly died. A smile on his face shows what Operation Proper Exit is all about.

1st Lt. Kirchner travelled back to Iraq along with retired Master Sgt. Tom Carpenter, retired Sgt. Bill Congleton, Sgt. 1st Class Josh Olson, Sgt. 1st Class Mike Schlitz, and Capt. Sam Brown.  Meeting Brown was a unique experience for Kirchner, who had his first face-to-face conversation with a severe burn victim.  The two immediately developed a bond, and Capt. Brown, who was injured in Afghanistan in September 2008, would later get to spend time with his wife, Capt. Amy Brown, during the group’s visit to a Baghdad palace, where the military rolled out the red carpet for the returning heroes.

Despite the serious nature of their wounds and the grief associated with visiting areas where comrades had fallen, the five combat veterans developed a friendly rapport.  They joked around and even teased each other about their injuries.

“It may surprise people that wounded guys pick on each other,” Kirchner said.  “But it helps us all.”

Everywhere the group traveled, U.S. troops of all ranks and backgrounds saluted them and wanted to hear their war stories.  The conversations were positive not just for the participants of Operation Proper Exit, but for morale of the troops on the ground.

“It was phenomenal,” Kirchner explained.  “It didn’t matter where we were, every branch was supporting us.”

While the enthusiasm inside the military meant the world to Kirchner, seeing the changes to daily life in Iraq since he served there is what finally gave Jim’s aching heart peace.

“Going back and being able to talk to the Iraqis had made a difference,” Kirchner said.  “The Iraqi people are now reporting al Qaeda.  They don’t want them there.  That never would have happened back in 2005.”

With his vastly different second trip to Iraq complete, Jim relaxed at home during a wintry day in Douglasville, Georgia.  Now a health physicist for the CDC, Jim is helping Sissy raise their four children and watching his son, Pvt. Dustin Carney, finish training at Fort Gordon.  Carney has made his dad proud, but Kirchner’s real-life war experience has also left him concerned.

“I’m not sure if it’s harder to be deployed yourself or see a loved one get sent overseas,” Jim said.  “I now realize what my wife was going through.”

The chilly February weather makes Kirchner’s constant pain a bit worse, and the shrapnel in his heart isn’t going anywhere.  But unlike many of his fellow wounded warriors, he was able to confront his past so he could have a brighter future, thanks to the Troops First Foundation, USO, and the United States military.  Instead of dwelling on the past, Jim says he cannot wait to see what tomorrow brings.

“A lot of guys want to go back,” Kirchner said.  “I absolutely cherish that I got the chance.”

Tom Sileo is a former CNN journalist who now runs a blog, The Unknown Soldiers, dedicated to unsung heroes of the war on terrorism.  The opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of Tom Sileo and do not necessarily reflect those of the USO.

Operation Proper Exit IV in Photos

OPE IV Baghdad

Participants of Operation Proper Exit IV pose with the USO logo and USO staff at Camp Sather AB USO, Baghdad. (USO Photo by Rick Kell)

Center Manager Terry Benson welcomes participants from Operation Proper Exit IV to Camp Sather AB USO, Baghdad, including Rick Kell (center), of the Troops First Foundation. (USO Photo by Richard McCarty)

OPE VI Baghdad

Participants in Operation Proper Exit IV meet the staff and receive orientation at Camp Sather AB USO, Baghdad. (USO Photo by Richard McCarty)

OPE IV Baghdad

Duty Manager Richard McCarty and Center Manager Terry Benson talk with a participant of Operation Proper Exit IV, at Camp Sather AB USO, Baghdad. (USO Photo by Rick Kell)

More than two-hundred soldiers turned out to greet six wounded warriors participating in Operation Proper Exit as they made a stop in Camp Prosperity, Feb. 2, as part of their seven day tour of the forward operating bases in Iraq. Prosperity is currently home to a number of units charged with the administration and security of the International Zone who welcomed being given the opportunity to thank those who came before. (Photo courtesy of the Texas Army National Guard.)

Representatives of the many units actively working on FOB Prosperity, including the 336th Military Police Battalion, 72nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team and 571st MP Battalion, stood ready to welcome the return of six soldiers wounded during their tours in Iraq as part of Operation Proper Exit. The program brings wounded soldiers back to Iraq as part of their healing process and is run through the USO and the Troops First Foundation. (Photo by Texas Army National Guard 1Lt Darryl Frost)

The Journey Continues for Participants in Operation Proper Exit III

US Army Sergeant First Class Mike Schlitz, who was severely burned and lost both arms in a IED blast in 2007, hugs a military comrade as he returns to visit his 10th Mountain unit as part of "Operation Proper Exit" at Combat Outpost Carver, Iraq, December 30, 2009. (USO Photo by Mike Theiler)

A member of the US Army's 10th Mountain (right) makes a comment at a Meet and Greet for returning Wounded Warriors, seated at the table in background, as part of "Operation Proper Exit" at Combat Outpost Carver, Iraq, December 30, 2009. (seated left to right): Sergeant First Class Josh Olson, Captain Sam Brown, First Lieutenant Jim Kirchner (Retired), Sergeant First Class Mike Schlitz, and Sergeant Bill Congleton (Retired). (USO Photo by Mike Theiler)

Soldiers of the US Army's 10th Mountain listen intently to Wounded Warriors who have returned to Iraq as part of "Operation Proper Exit" at Combat Outpost Carver, Iraq, December 30, 2009. Co-sponsored by the USO and the Troops First Foundation, the program is designed to help bring closure to wounded service members who have been injured in combat, the group will be retracing their steps to the areas they once patrolled. (USO Photo by Mike Theiler)

US Army First Lieutenant Jim Kirchner (Retired), (right) who was wounded in a mortar attack in 2005 in Iraq, chats with a team of soldiers from the Army's 10th Mountain, as part of "Operation Proper Exit" at Combat Outpost Carver, Iraq, December 30, 2009. (USO Photo by Mike Theiler)

US Army First Lieutenant Jim Kirchner (Retired) (left), who was wounded in a mortar attack in 2005 close to where he is standing, chats with members of the North Carolina National Guard, as part of "Operation Proper Exit" at Camp Mahmudiya, formerly Forward Operating Base Saint Michael, Iraq, December 30, 2009. (USO Photo by Mike Theiler)

US Army First Lieutenant Jim Kirchner (Retired) (left), who was wounded in a mortar attack in 2005 close to where he is standing, chats with members of the North Carolina National Guard at a makeshift memorial to fallen soldiers, as part of "Operation Proper Exit" at Camp Mahmudiya, formerly Forward Operating Base Saint Michael, Iraq, December 30, 2009. (USO Photo by Mike Theiler)

US Army Captain Sam Brown (center), who was badly burned in a IED blast in 2008 in Afghanistan shows his wounds to soldiers of the US Army's 10th Mountain, as part of "Operation Proper Exit" at Combat Outpost Carver, Iraq, December 30, 2009. (USO Photo by Mike Theiler)

More Images from Operation Proper Exit III

Crew members of a US Army BlackHawk helicopter hold an American flag as they pose with five returning Wounded Warriors at Camp Korean Village, Iraq, December 29, 2009. (left to right): Captain Sam Brown, Sergeant First Class Josh Olson, Sergeant First Class Mike Schlitz, Sergeant Bill Congleton (Retired), and First Lieutenant Jim Kirchner (Retired). (USO Photo by Mike Theiler)

Sergeant Bill Congleton (Retired) spreads his arms wide as he prepares to greet comrades of the Oregon National Guard at Camp Korean Village, Iraq, December 29, 2009. Congleton, who lost a leg in a IED blast in 2004, returned to Iraq with a group of Wounded Warriors with "Operation Proper Exit". (USO Photo by Mike Theiler)

Sergeant Bill Congleton (Retired) hugs a comrade of the Oregon National Guard at Camp Korean Village, Iraq, December 29, 2009. (USO Photo by Mike Theiler)

Sergeant First Class Mike Schlitz (left), who lost both arms and was badly burned in a IED blast in 2007, and returned to Iraq with a group of Wounded Warriors with "Operation Proper Exit", talks to soldiers at Camp Korean Village, Iraq, December 29, 2009. (USO Photo by Mike Theiler)

Sergeant First Class Josh Olson (left), Captain Sam Brown, and his wife, Captain Amy Brown are all smiles after arriving with a group of returning Wounded Warriors on "Operation Proper Exit", at Camp Korean Village, Iraq, December 29, 2009. (USO Photo by Mike Theiler)

First Lieutenant Jim Kirchner (Retired) (second from right), who suffered severe injuries in a mortar attack in Iraq in 2005, and returned with a group of Wounded Warriors with "Operation Proper Exit", chats with soldiers at Camp Korean Village, Iraq, December 29, 2009. (USO Photo by Mike Theiler)

Sergeant Bill Congleton (Retired) (second from right) poses with comrades of the Oregon National Guard at Camp Korean Village, Iraq, December 29, 2009. Congleton, who lost a leg in a IED blast in 2004, returned to Iraq with a group of Wounded Warriors with "Operation Proper Exit". (USO Photo by Mike Theiler)