NEW KABUL COMPOUND, Afghanistan – Though the air was frigid, and a fresh dusting of snow covered the ground, the crowd of U.S. military personnel, civilian contractors and members of the NATO Alliance waited in excited anticipation. They erupted with applause, cheering and clapping as one-by-one, five wounded heroes (soldiers), guests of Operation Proper Exit, and their mentor arrived at the New Kabul Compound, March 15, 2014.
Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Colt, U.S. Forces Afghanistan, deputy commander for support; Brig. Gen. Wayne Eyre, NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan; Rear Adm. Althea H. Coetzee, director of U.S. Forces Afghanistan, operational Contracts; Maj. Gen. Duane Gamble, 1st Theater Sustainment Command, deputy commander; and Sgt. Maj. Gerald Green, NATO Training Mission - Afghanistan, stood at the head of the walkway to greet the honored soldiers. After a brief introduction, the wounded soldiers walked a heroes walk up the NKC sidewalk, among a throng of awestruck well-wishers, they shook hands with as many as they possibly could before entering the headquarters building.
The soldiers are honored guests and participating members of Operation Proper Exit, a program designed to recognize the sacrifice of wounded U.S. warriors.
Left to Right, Top Row; Rick Kell, Troops First Foundation escort, Command Sgt. Maj. Glen Vela, military mentor, Operation Proper Exit Warriors; Sgt. Noah Galloway, Sgt. Daniel Harrison, Capt. Matt Anderson, Spc. Andrew Miller, Richard Emberlin Troops First Foundation escort. Bottom Row; Operation Proper Exit Warrior, Sgt. Ryan McIntosh, and Sgt. Maj. Alan Gibson, military escort, pose for a group event took place at the New Kabul Compound, March 15, 2014. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Timothy Lawn)
Colt, minced no words about his feelings, and said it best when he addressed the soldiers.
“Men of action,... you've made a huge difference,” Colt said.
Operation Proper Exit's Facebook page, states the program was founded in 2009, it was an off-shoot of another non-profit veterans program titled, Troops First Foundation, founded in August 2008 by two college basketball coaches Rick Kell and David Feherty. Their idea for helping troops germinated after an initial visit to troops in the Middle-East in the summer of 2005 and subsequent visits and interaction with wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
According to the Facebook page, Operation Proper Exit is for those Wounded Warriors who are making positive gains in their own recovery, they are hand selected and invited to return to the battlefield with fellow wounded soldiers to observe the enduring legacy of their sacrifice and to be offered an opportunity to get a sense of closure to their mission.
The Operation Proper Exit visit is part of a select whirlwind tour of some of Afghanistan's forward operating bases beginning March 12, and lasting several days.
The New Kabul Compound stop-over is part of the culmination of a visit where the soldier's are hosted by the International NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan, United States Forces – Afghanistan, and the International Security Assistance Force leadership, soldiers and civilians.
Once inside USFOR-A headquarters the soldiers enjoyed breakfast with selected soldiers from NMT-A, USFOR-A, and ISAF. There the soldiers had a chance to tell war stories and meet brothers-in-arms and to freely discuss their feelings, thoughts and opinions as to why they were there.
After breakfast they were whisked up to the United States Forces – Afghanistan commander's conference room where they received a thorough brief and a Q and A on Afghanistan's progress, the mission and how they as soldiers, contributed to the success of war effort.
During the brief they learned about the status of the mission, U.S. Forces and the state of the Afghan forces, and how, Afghans were taking responsibility for the security of their nation.
One of the soldiers, Sgt. Ryan McIntosh felt he needed to know whether it was worth it or not.
McIntosh was wounded in 2010. McIntosh at the time was assigned to 4th ID, 1st Brigade, 1/66 AR. He described his life-changing event in animated detail; on the day it happened his unit was conducting what he described as a normal foot patrol, they were about 100 meters from being back in base and he had to jump a small canal, as he jumped, he landed on a mine, he bluntly said that he had been in the Army seven whole months.
When asked why he came back? McIntosh replied, “A huge plus to come back with the guys I have been with. You really don't hear a lot about it (the war), back home... you kind of wonder, was it worth it,” he said.
For McIntosh, he felt he needed to know whether he made a difference...
“What I did was help them (Afghans) realize that they needed to be the driving force and to drive on, continue the mission,” said McIntosh.
Col. Steven Merkel, the Chief of Staff for the NATO training mission, described his feelings when speaking about the Operation Proper Exit soldiers and mission.
“What a great thing it is, to be able to spend time with fellow brothers in arms... who I believe faced a difficult decision to come back to Afghanistan,” Merkel said. He added, “It's so incredibly special to hear their stories, to hear them talk about their families and the brothers they left behind...”
Merkel summed it up by saying that it was days like today that remind him of why soldiers sacrifice, for Merkel, it's because soldiers believe in the cause.
As the brief concluded, Colt presented each soldier with a flag that had flown over NKC and a certificate signed by him as a parting thanks for everything they have done and for the continued success of their recovery.
More photos available below
By U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Timothy Lawn
Provided through DVIDS
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