Maj. Gen. Michael Bills, commander of 1st Cavalry Division and Regional Command South, greets retired Sgt. Adam Keys with a welcoming handshake on Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan, during Operation Proper Exit on July 10. Keys was an engineer who served with the 20th Engineer Brigade before he was wounded in combat in 2010.

Staff Sgt. Whitney C. Houston | U.S. Army

KANDAHAR AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — Soldiers wounded in Afghanistan are returning to the country as part of Operation Proper Exit.

Developed by Rick Kell and the Troops First Foundation, the program allows wounded warriors to return to the place where they were injured to help give them closure. Since Proper Exit was approved by the Army there have been 17 iterations. The latest trip stopped at Kandahar Air Field on July 10.

Five soldiers had a chance to be with fellow soldiers once more and leave a combat zone on their own terms, including Fort Hood’s Col. Timothy Karcher, chief of staff for Operational Test Command.

Within minutes of touching down in Kandahar, Black Hawk helicopters lifted the wounded warriors back into the air to take them to Forward Operating Base Pasab.

Karcher said just being able to thank the soldiers in the fight was satisfying enough for him, because he couldn’t otherwise be with soldiers in a combat zone.

“I miss being with soldiers more than I miss my legs, but the fact of the matter is I get to come back and see you all,” he said.

The wounded warriors enjoyed town hall meetings where they met with soldiers and answered questions, both to give them insight and encouragement.

Questions ranged from how they’ve dealt with the loss of limbs and eyesight to how their front-line care saved their lives. One question that was asked at both Pasab and Kandahar was what soldiers could do to help their injured buddies back home?

“If you guys could do one thing to increase the morale of those guys in some hospital trying to heal, contact them every now and again,” said Adam Hartswick, who was injured serving with the 1st Armored Division about a year ago. “I’ve got to tell you, when I got a call from the guys it was the highlight of my week, because you are there lying in bed, and you want to know what’s going on with your brothers and sisters over here. So just pick up the phone and call.”

Karcher said each guy takes something different away from coming to Afghanistan. Even though he was injured in Iraq, but the visit helped him feel close to the soldiers still in the fight. For others, the take away might be something else.

“Today we were flying over an area south of Kandahar, and one of the young sergeants we were with flew over the exact place where he lost his legs,” Karcher said. “What Sgt. Adam Hartswick is going to take back with him is a sense of closure, and he’s going to take back a feeling that the enemy didn’t win, because he was right back where he was wounded 14 months ago and he won. I think that is going to be huge for him.”

Troops First puts on Operation Proper Exit to give injured soldiers the opportunity to heal, not just their physical wounds, but the unseen pain that comes with being forced out of the fight while their brothers and sisters forge on.

Even though for some soldiers, visiting the site of their injury is no longer an option, Proper Exit is still a way to give these soldiers their proper leave of the battlefield, and maybe help a soldier or two still in a combat zone.

“Rick asked me if I’d come and I said I’d love to but I would have to ask my wife first,” Karcher said. “So I waited until she was in a good mood and I asked her. ... She didn’t understand it at first, and thought I just wanted to be near the fight. I just wanted to be around the soldiers who are in the fight. I think at the end of it all she accepted that, and she’ll understand it when I tell her all about the visit.”

Visit with medics

An important aspect of the tour, and the second biggest highlight for Karcher, was to see and talk to the medics and doctors who patch soldiers up so they can live another day.

The last event of the day at Kandahar Air Field was a visit to the NATO Role 3 Multinational Medical Unit where Hartswick was taken after being injured near Pasab.

Hartswick expressed his deepest appreciation to the staff there for the work they do, and chatted with them about what he remembered of the hospital.

“I remember the flags, and the ceiling. Not much else after that,” said Hartswick as he looked around the emergency room where they first receive patients. The sailor he was talking to explained the drugs they typically provide also have a limited amnesia effect to help reduce the trauma afterward.

“We’ve been to a couple medical facilities here in theater, and to be able to talk to medical folks who are saving lives,” Karcher said. “I can’t describe how moving it is to talk to these people who are saving lives every day.”

At the end of a long day of flights and visits, Karcher and the other wounded warriors got to their rooms for the night and were finally able to slip off their prostheses and give their legs a rest. There he explained how easy Kell and his team had made the visit.

“It is crazy easy,” Karcher said. “I had three forms to fill out, and next thing you know I had orders.”

Grateful for the opportunity to be a part of Proper Exit, Karcher expressed his appreciation for Kell and his organization. He said organizations such as his and others that serve soldiers and their families are a blessing.

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