Leaving the AOR on their own terms

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By Tech. Sgt. Louis Vega Jr., 386th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs / Published April 11, 2018

Retired Marine Sgt. Hubert Gonzalez helps retired Spc. Justin Lane onto a U.S. Air Force C-130, April 3, 2018, during an Operation Proper Exit mission departing from an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia enroute to Bagram, Afghanistan. OPE, an initiative of the Troops First Foundation was facilitated and designed with a goal to better the quality of life for combat-wounded service members and their families. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Louis Vega Jr.)

SOUTHWEST ASIA (AFNS) --

Eight wounded warriors, who have visible and invisible injuries from combat, were on a mission to find closure by returning to the place of their traumatic incident through Operation Proper Exit, April 4-8, 2018.

The combat veterans briefly visited an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia and departed on a U.S. Air Force C-130 enroute to Bagram, Afghanistan to take part in the 24th iteration of the event. The participants shared their stories of resiliency with deployed service members at multiple forward operating bases in the area of responsibility and returned to the site of their combat injury or the medical facility where they were treated.

“I’ve been given an opportunity to go back to complete my mission and walk off the battlefield with my head held high,” said Spc. Justin Lane, former U.S. Army combat engineer.

OPE, an initiative of the Troops First Foundation, is a unique therapy program designed to give wounded service members like Lane an opportunity to face their traumatic memories of war and leave the battlefield on their own terms.

Lane’s job was to make it safe for troops to travel by clearing routes of improvised explosive devices.

During a mission on July 3, 2011, he sustained multiple injuries after a 200-pound IED exploded taking both his legs and suffering a total of 26 injuries throughout his body. He was in a coma for a month and a half and hospitalized for a year after the incident. Prior to the incident, Lane’s best friend was shot and killed by a sniper, which he said left him in a dark place.

“I had a lot of anger,” added Lane. “I am happy I was able to go back to Afghanistan and leave it all behind.”

The journey not only provided closure for those who suffered obvious physical injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder, it also allowed a unique perspective from service members in support elements.

“I took care of a lot of these guys,” said U.S. Navy Cmdr. William Danchanko, Walter Reed medical facility nurse practitioner. “The health care providers who weren’t injured and who see that every single day sometimes feel left out of the fight.”

Danchancko was deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011 and treated wounded troops during the surge. He and one of the wounded warriors are close friends and decided to embark in the experience together.

“I would recommend this for anybody who has dealt with wounded,” said Danchanko. “For me it has brought a lot of resolve. There were days when we were saving people and you wonder how good their quality of life would be after the injuries. After you spend time with these guys you realize (their quality of life is good) you did the right thing by saving them.

The combat veterans were escorted by Medal of Honor recipient and wounded warrior, Master Sgt. (Ret.) Leroy Petry. This event was Petry’s 24th trip escorting service members on behalf of OPE. Since the inception of OPE in 2009, more than 120 injured service members have returned to Afghanistan and Iraq as part of the unique initiative designed for wounded service members who are thriving in recovery and are capable of returning to theater.

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