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Spc. Michael J. MacLeod
CAMP RAMADI, Iraq (Oct. 16, 2009) --
A group of eight wounded warriors have returned to the combat zone in Iraq where they were injured, to find a sense of closure.
This second group of "Operation Proper Exit" will spend a week in Iraq, thanks to the Troops First Foundation and the USO. In June, six amputee combat veterans went back to Iraq as part of "Proper Exit" and visited seven military installations.
This week the veterans are also traveling to many of the places where they received injuries, to see firsthand what progress their sacrifices and those of their comrades have brought to Iraq.
At Camp Ramadi, in western Iraq, the wounded warriors were assigned "airborne buddies" with whom they visited and shared war stories:
The first time retired Sgt. Ethan Payton walked the dog after his amputation, the dog ran off with his prosthetic hand, he said.
2nd Lt. Richard Ingram, a platoon leader with 1st Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 82nd Airborne Division (Advise and Assist Brigade), said he lost his prosthetic hand once to a shopping cart in Target.
Brave humor shared between amputees and other wounded warriors helps the healing, they said. Payton met Ingram at a town hall meeting where participants related their journey from injury back toward health.
Payton admired Ingram for coming back to active duty with the 82nd Airborne at Camp Ramadi, in spite of an arm amputation similar to his. Payton asked the lieutenant how he is able to accomplish all the tasks of being a Soldier, with only one hand.
Ingram demonstrated how he reloads his M-4 rifle and said that most combat-related tasks just take practice.
"It's shuffling paperwork that'll kill you," said Ingram.
Payton said he understands the need to properly exit the battlefield.
Payton in 2004 was attached to the 1st Cavalry Division in Baghdad when he lost his left arm to a rocket-propelled grenade blast.
After convalescing at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., Payton could not get Iraq out of his mind. He spent two summers in Morocco studying Arabic.
In spring 2009, he graduated from Rutgers University with a Bachelor of Arts in Middle Eastern Studies, paid for by the GI Bill and the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Program. When the call came to be part of the second Operation Proper Exit, he did not hesitate.
This week he met with Brig. Gen. Kendall P. Cox, commander of the Transatlantic Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Baghdad. Cox was Payton's battalion commander when he first came to the 101st Airborne Division after air assault school, and he was also in Iraq during the period of Payton's injury.
"His professionalism, integrity and the way he respected Soldiers really influenced me as a young soldier," said Payton, adding that this week's meeting helped him experience closure.
Payton is planning a civilian career in the Arab-speaking world, either in North Africa or the Middle East.
"The Army teaches you to complete the mission," said Payton. "This is my way of completing the mission."
Command Sgt. Maj. LaMarquis Knowles, command sergeant major of 1st BCT, 82nd Airborne Division, briefed the eight wounded warriors on the progress made in Al Anbar, which included a decrease in attacks from about 1,350 in March 2007 to only 50 in September 2009.
The most tangible sign of progress is the reduction of U.S. forces here, where an Army brigade of 3,600 Soldiers is replacing two Regimental Combat Team headquarters that were the ground combat element in Anbar, said Knowles.
"You can be assured your sacrifices were worth something," Knowles said.
Several of the veterans remarked at how odd it seemed to be in Iraq without the background noise of mortars, improvised explosive devices or small-arms fire.
"This program is an important part" of his journey back to health said Sgt. John Hyland, who is on active duty while recovering at the Center for the Intrepid, Fort Sam Houston, Texas. "I haven't slept this well in weeks."
(Spc. Michael J. MacLeod serves with 1st Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division (Advise and Assist Brigade) Multi National Force - West Public Affairs.)