CAMP VICTORY, Iraq –
As America's military role in Iraq winds down, the U.S. is grappling with how to help some of the more than 30,000 troops injured in six years of war move ahead with their lives. One approach is to bring them back to the battlefields where they were injured.
It is a process akin to Vietnam veterans returning to the streets of Hue or Americans from World War II returning to the Belgian forests of Bastogne — a process made more difficult by the fact that American men and women are still dying in Iraq. But the fact that this group of men have come this far shows the lengths some need to go to find that elusive thing called closure.
"A part of me was left here in Iraq," said Cpl. Craig Chavez, who was blinded in a November 2006 attack in an area south of Baghdad once known as the "triangle of death" because of the fierce fighting. "Unless you've been through this and unless you've been here, you'll never understand."
Chavez, 29, of Temecula, California, was one of six soldiers and a Marine, all wounded in combat, who wrapped up a weeklong trip to Iraq on Sunday as part of a program that returns the wounded to the places they were injured or, if that's not possible, to the base where they were last stationed. The program was started by a nonprofit organization with the support of the military
Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, 31,483 U.S. service members have been wounded in hostile action, according to the Defense Department. The Department of Veterans Affairs did not respond to Associated Press telephone and e-mail requests for the number of troops disabled and types of injuries sustained in combat in Iraq.
While the physical injuries of those visiting Iraq are daunting, it is the emotional wounds that the program aims to heal.
"They need to come back so they don't have to go on dreaming about Iraq, go on dealing with the night terrors of Iraq," said Command Sgt. Maj. Lawrence Wilson, who has been coordinating military support for the program, dubbed "Operation Proper Exit."
Chavez has struggled with memories of the war since he stepped on a bomb during an ambush near Mahmoudiya, about 20 miles (30 kilometers) south of Baghdad. The explosion left him with shrapnel wounds that wounded his face so badly he underwent full facial reconstruction. His best friend was killed in the attack.
He returned to the base earlier this week where they had served together. There, he ran his fingers over his friend's name etched into a memorial wall. Finally, he was able to say privately what he has waited to say since he left Iraq — goodbye.
"It was worth it, just going back to say what I had to say to him," Chavez said at Camp Victory, a sprawling base on the outskirts of Baghdad that serves as the U.S. military headquarters.
Although many have moved on without the need to return, there are some who feel they didn't get the chance to properly say goodbye, said Richard Kell, executive director of the nonprofit Troops First Foundation. The group sponsored the trip with the support of the USO — a service organization that assists servicemen and women.
Kell said the idea came to him last year after volunteering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and talking to injured troops.
"The first thing you hear from some of the wounded warriors is that they want to go back because they want to be with their buddies. Then later, as they heal physically ... they say they want to go back to get closure," Kell said.
A test case of five soldiers came in June and was so successful that a second trip was organized. A third trip is planned for late December, and the hope is that eventually there will be monthly trips until U.S. forces pull out at the end of 2011.
Kell said there are hundreds who have asked to participate.
Sgt. Robert Brown, 26, of Moncks Corner, South Carolina, was part of the June group and returned this week as a mentor. Brown, who lost his leg below the knee in a 2006 attack west of Baghdad, said he found comfort in knowing others were experiencing similar emotions.
"There are those moments, they happen on occasion, where you are overwhelmed. It helped to have that feeling that I wasn't alone," he said.
The foundation and the USO pays the $12,000 to $14,000 it costs to bring someone over. Once in Iraq, the military pays.
Those chosen, mostly amputees, have been cleared by doctors. Each also must have shown progress in their lives, such as working or involvement with sports. And most have been medically retired by the military.
Army 1st Lt. Edwin Salau lost his leg in a Nov. 15, 2004 ambush north of Baghdad. He visited his old unit, which is back in Iraq. Most had not seen him since he was wounded.
"I needed to see those soldiers who were there that day. I needed them to see me leave on my feet," said Salau, 38, of Stella, N.C.
The group also found themselves being approached for advice by soldiers, many of whom lost comrades during the war.
"I didn't expect that. At the beginning of the week, I didn't entirely understand it," Salau said. "They were asking what they could do to help their friends who were hurt."
Their advice? Simply stay in touch and offer emotional support.
The program met some resistance from doctors and others, who questioned whether it was a good idea for people still struggling with emotional wounds to return to Iraq, said Army Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.
Odierno's son lost his left arm in an August 2004 attack in Baghdad. Odierno has rarely spoken publicly about his son's injuries.
"I think it carried some weight that I was able to say 'I'm a father of a wounded warrior. I know how he feels.' I know he would want to come back," Odierno said.
Odierno met with the group and said they asked questions about U.S. military progress.
"They want their sacrifice to be lasting here," he said. "They want it to mean something."
Shortly before leaving, some of the men said the trip didn't solve all their problems. But it helped put to rest at least some of their demons.
"I found some closure in certain areas," Chavez said.