BAGHDAD – The last time they were here, they lost a piece of themselves. Years, and numerous surgeries later, they've returned to get a small piece back.
A hush fell over the crowd as the six Soldiers, many with noticeable limps from their prosthetic limbs, and two military mentors, also wounded in Iraq, entered the chapel.
The uncomfortable silence hung in the air, but only for a few seconds, as the crowd quickly realized that the men seated in front of them were their brothers in arms.
The wounded warriors shared one of the most difficult things about being hurt that people don't often think of, but which we hear a lot here at Landstuhl.
"That was the most frustrating part was not being in the fight, not knowing where my guys were," said Sgt. Omar Avila, who, while serving with 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division was struck by a 200-pound improvised explosive device, May 14, 2007, suffering burns over 75 percent of his body and had part of his foot amputated.
Sgt. 1st Class Joshua Olson, an active duty military mentor for the six Soldiers and making his third return trip to Iraq since being wounded, echoed Avila's sentiment.
"I was with my boys for nine straight months, 24-7, and then I woke up in a hospital and they weren't there," he said. "That was the most frustrating part of the transition for me."
Letters from their buddies back on the line, even just simple email updates were helpful in keeping them informed and keeping their spirits up while they healed, they said.
"We didn't come back to flags waving – we didn't have any real reintegration period," said Sgt. Jay Fain. "We still felt like we were in the fight."
However, it wasn't long before inhibitions broke down and the serious and somber tone of the conversation transformed into one more commonly heard around infantrymen.
"The best part about being injured is you can really mess with people," laughed Sgt. 1st Class Michael Schlitz, the other military mentor travelling with the group, who suffered burns on 85 percent of his body and lost both hands after being hit by an IED in 2007.
The wounded Soldiers teased one another about their injuries, the burn victims saying the amputees only had "paper cuts" while one Soldier who had his leg amputated joked that he now dresses as a pirate with a peg leg every Halloween.
This levity had a huge impact on many of the Soldiers in the audience, showing them that life goes on after being wounded.
"It was very inspirational," said Spc. Carlos Perez, a Stryker gunner assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 4th SBCT, 2nd Inf. Div., who said that he was a little nervous about the experience at first, not knowing the extent of the Soldiers' injuries.
"They were very outgoing, and handling their situation really well," he said.
Pfc. Adam McHenry, also with HHC 4th SBCT, 2nd Inf. Div., agreed.
"It's reassuring knowing that if you do get injured you will be taken care of," he said.
Schlitz, who is on his second visit to Iraq in nearly a month, said that for him, meeting with the Soldier currently serving in Iraq is the most important part of the Operation Proper Exit mission.
"We get to support you guys," he said. "You guys are the ones bringing the fight to a close."
A video interview with SFC Schlitz can be seen here.