14 October 2009

Wounded Warriors receive Heroes' Welcome in Iraq

Soldiers from the 14th Iraqi Army Division express their gratitude to Sgt. First Class Joshu Olson, Spokane, Wash., and five more Soldiers a part of Operation Proper Exit at Salah Ad Din Provincial Joint Coordination Center, Tikrit, Oct. 12. Olson suffered a right hip disarticulation from a rocket propelled grenade on Oct. 27, 2003. He is currently serving as a member of the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit.

Iraq progress inspires returning US war wounded

13 October 2009 CAMP VICTORY, Iraq - A group of US soldiers badly wounded in combat in Iraq have returned to the war-torn country, hailing the improved security situation as a rousing vindication of their sacrifices.

For retired lieutenant Edwin Salau, whose wounds from a 2004 ambush attack near Tuz Khurmatu north of Baghdad left him without a lower leg, the trip has shown the pain he endured was not in vain.

Sgt. Robert H. Brown, Moncks Corner, S.C., adjust his prosthetic leg after boarding a C-130 aircraft headed from Contingency Operating Base Speicher to Baghdad International Airport during Operation Proper Exit. Brown was injured on Sept. 24, 2006 in Ramadi. Brown is serving as mentor for this group. He participated in the first Operation Proper Exit trip in June.

“The return was very inspiring,” the 30-year-old said of being driven along the “Highway of Death,” as the notorious road from Baghdad airport had become known for its ambushes and bomb attacks.

“I felt the changes on the way to the base. We had no escort, didn’t hear gunshots,” said Salau.

“I saw construction sites, civilian workers, businesses. That couldn’t have happened five years ago. Clearly the economy is growing, the security has improved.”

Along with seven other war wounded, he is taking part in “Operation Proper Exit,” a week-long tour of the country to show them Iraq’s “changes through their sacrifice,” the US military says.

Service Members from Camp Victory, Iraq, welcome the Wounded Warriors of Operation Proper Exit II during a ceremony in the rotunda of Al Faw Palace on October 11, 2009.

On their arrival on Sunday, the group of soldiers wounded in war were greeted at Camp Victory, one of the largest US bases in Iraq near Baghdad airport.

A poignant welcoming ceremony was held in a former palace of Saddam Hussein with a presentation punctuated by accolades, cheers and shouts of “You’re a warrior!”

Sergeant Robert H. Brown, who left Iraq in September 2006 on a stretcher, said the decision to return to the field of action has been an opportunity to “turn a page” in his life as an amputee.

“I’m here to say to the soldiers in Iraq that if injured they will be fine,” said Brown, 26, who made a similar trip last year and is overseeing this one as a mentor.

The sergeant was wounded during an ambush in Ramadi, where at the time US forces were supporting the Sahwa (Awakening), the Sunni tribal militias fighting al-Qaeda.

“I didn’t know what to expect but I was impressed. So much has changed. Last time I gave a TV interview on a rooftop in Ramadi which had been not possible ever in 2006,” he said referring to his first year in Iraq.

“I wanted to give the same kind of experience I had, a feeling of closure because I left Iraq without completing my mission. I close a chapter of my life and now I leave on my own free will.”

Others in the group too welcomed the improved security situation.

“On the way from the airport I’ve seen new buildings, and I didn’t hear gunshots every five minutes. Now it’s silent,” said Sergeant Joshua Olson who suffered a serious hip injury just months after his deployment in Iraq in 2003.

Soldiers participating as part of Operation Proper Exit board a C-130 aircraft headed to Forward Operating Base Sykes outside of Tal Afar Oct. 12. The six wounded warriors returned to Iraq to visit Soldiers they had been serving with when wounded, camps throughout Iraq and to see firsthand how things have progressed since they were last deployed.

“I’m happy that we are able to bring people back as it is not as dangerous as before. It’s reassuring,” said the 30-year-old who has since returned to duties as a sniper instructor.

Sergeant Brown admitted “some had reservations, but not to the point they did not want to take the plane. They saw that others had already been back, it’s reassured them.”

Chief Warrant Officer Lawrence Wilson, who organised the tour, said the returnees had to be prepared mentally and physically and shown to have made medical progress since leaving Iraq.

“They will also leave Iraq on their own, not carried out by medics. It is part of a healing process and for some a new beginning. Now they can move forward,” said Wilson.

Col. Gary Volesky, commander of 3rd "Greywolf" Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cav. Div., thanks Sgt. Robert Brown, a Soldier participating in Operation Proper Exit, at Forward Operating Base Sykes, Oct. 12, for his heroic service and sacrifice. Volesky awarded Brown with the Order of the Spur and a Commander's Coin for Excellence to recognize and honor his sacrifice.

“Operation Proper Exit” has the support of General Ray Odierno, commander of US forces in Iraq, who sees the benefit to his troops still active on the ground.

“It’s also valuable for military here, because they see injured, amputated soldiers who want to come back,” said the general who spent half an hour with the group after the welcoming ceremony.

According to the independent website iCasualties.org, 4,349 US soldiers have died and 31,527 have been wounded since the start of the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

Photos: MNC-Iraq Facebook page.

I could look at the photos all day... don't these guys look great? I'm so happy they had the opportunity to go back and see all of the accomplishments made possible through their sacrifices.

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