NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
In 2006, a Humvee with U.S. Army Captain Ferris Butler aboard hit an improved explosive device, an IED, in Yusefia, Iraq. The explosion was devastating. After Butler was evacuated, doctors amputated part of his left leg and his right foot.
He spent more than a year at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in recovery, and all that time, he couldn't stop thinking about Iraq, about his fellow soldiers there, about what happened to him.
Butler desperately wanted to return to the place where his life changed so dramatically, and it turns out he wasn't alone. Other wounded vets felt the same way.
Last year, Butler got the opportunity to return to Iraq with a small group of soldiers, as part of a new and unprecedented program called Operation Proper Exit. In just a minute, Captain Butler and others who participated in Operation Proper Exit.
If you are retired military, did you go back to Normandy or Khe Sanh or to Fallujah? Tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our Web site at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, what might happen if Israel decides to attack Iranian nuclear sites; lessons learned from war games. But first, Operation Proper Exit. Retired Army Captain Ferris Butler joins us here in Studio 3A. nice to have you with us today on TALK OF THE NATION.
Retired Captain FERRIS BUTLER (U.S. Army): Thank, Neal. It's a pleasure to be here.
CONAN: And what were your expectations of making a return?
Retired Capt. BUTLER: Well, I'll tell you, it was kind of a dynamic thought process that occurred, you know, over three years at Walter Reed, prior to me returning back to Iraq - kind of an interesting concept that was created by Rick Kell, Troops First Foundation's president. It was to grab guys that were kind of in a state of thriving while they were at Walter Reed. You know, upon completing that transition back into their normal lives, grabbing them and moving into their new...
CONAN: Redefinition of normal, but...
Retired Capt. BUTLER: Exactly. That's absolutely right. So, you know, to bring it back to myself, it was an interesting time to go back to Iraq, because my guys from Tenth Mountain are currently in Iraq again on their next rotation. So it really kind of brought things full circle for me.
You know, I reached that point, after countless surgeries and going through, you know, countless hours of rehabilitation and trying to figure out my plan of life, you know, where I was going. You know, it was kind of - just a dynamic opportunity.
CONAN: And of the things you expected to feel, see, hear or do when you got back, what in fact moved you the most?
Retired Capt. BUTLER: Well, it was again, there's just so many, there's so many sides of it I could speak on, but I think it was just really when it gets down to it for me, at least, it was really the opportunity to just get back out and do it.
You know, it was just a matter of kind of not so much just, you know, being able to say that I conquered the demon, you know, I got back to exactly where I was injured; but just the fact that it was a new transition. It was "another deployment," quote-unquote, to Iraq.
It wasn't about healing. It wasn't about, you know, moving past my injury. It was literally about getting back on the horse and going after it again. That's (unintelligible).
CONAN: And that's why it was so important to you. And since coming back from that visit, do you feel like, well, a little bit more that you can move on?
Retired Capt. BUTLER: Without a doubt. I mean, and again, it kind of brings me back, you know, in that full circle I always speak of. It makes me kind of vision things that I can do to help out in the future. So it's not even about moving on. It's about how I can affect things from here on out.
CONAN: And to was there a widespread feeling amongst the people you were there with at Walter Reed, that they wanted to go back?
Retired Capt. BUTLER: I would say so. Some guys, you know, on several tours, I don't know if it was the benefit or not, in some sense, but it was my first tour to Iraq. So I think it gets probably progressively harder, you know, on guys that have been three, four, five times. But with this being my first iteration, you know, six months into my first tour, it really, you know, moved me to jump back on that horse.
So I think there's probably varying levels of interest, just in the sense that everyone is different.
Retired Capt. BUTLER: You know, everybody's injuries are different. Everybody's experiences were different.
CONAN: Interesting. We're talking with people who participated in Operation Proper Exit. 800-989-8255 if you went back to Khe Sanh or to Normandy, 800-989-8255, or you can email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. Steve's(ph) on the line, Steve calling us from southeast Ohio.
STEVE (Caller): Yes. Captain, first of all, thank you for your service, and second, I commend you for your ability to be able to return to that zone. I exited Vietnam more than 40 years ago, and I've never been able to bring myself to come back. I flew the door there in '67 and '8. So I was there for Tet, and I have friends who have returned, and I have people, my wife inclusive, who have asked me if I thought returning might help, but I've never been able to bring myself to cross that barrier.
And I just wonder, do you feel, having done this, do you feel as though you've really experienced closure from the standpoint that, to use your phrase, you exited differently?
Retired Capt. BUTLER: Steve, first I'd like to thank you for your service. Having my father being a Vietnam-era guy, as well as my uncle, who was a chopper pilot in Vietnam...
CONAN: And Steve, when you say you rode the door, you were a door-gunner on a helicopter?
STEVE: Yes, sir, I was.
Retired Capt. BUTLER: Exactly. So I appreciate your service.
STEVE: Thank you.
Retired Capt. BUTLER: To your pointed question, it's I think closure is kind of a loose term. I think, you know, that happens in everyone's mind, differently. I think I probably felt closure the day I retired from the Army and moved on with my new life. I think going back to Iraq actually opened up a new door and was able it allowed me not only to reflect on my past experiences but kind of, you know, hold, you know, hold that door wide open for my future endeavors.
STEVE: If I could just quickly ask one other question relative to this: Do you think, do you feel that the attitude of our nation welcoming the veteran home offers you a better opportunity to deal with the situation than it did with Vietnam, where the country was in turmoil, and there was so much...
CONAN: Just to remind younger listeners, the veterans coming back from Vietnam were not necessarily greeted home with parades.
STEVE: I don't want to belabor that.
CONAN: No, I understand. I'm just trying to tell younger people, who may not remember.
STEVE: Thank you.
Retired Capt. BUTLER: Steve, no, I couldn't agree more, and I think the easiest way to answer that is to say that I don't know it any other way. From literally the day I got hit, I was in Germany a couple days later, and then a few days after that back in the states, and I've been literally welcomed with opened arms through that entire process, and we're I'm going on, let's see here, three years and four months.
CONAN: Not that anybody's counting.
Retired Capt. BUTLER: Not that anyone's counting. So, you know, literally from everything as simple as Christmas cards to just overwhelming expressions of thank you. I've been helped through some of the darkest times and obviously appreciate that to, you know, words will never explain that.
And it often makes me reflect on the way Vietnam-era soldiers, Marines, Airmen - were treated just because I don't think you guys were able to be appreciated but also appreciate the fact that you had the United States behind you the way Afghanistan and Iraq veterans have.
I actually was just sitting in breakfast last week, at a meeting with a Vietnam veteran, who's a mentor of mine. And he was explaining to me 20 years after the conflict, when he returned, you know, how instrumental it was for his recovery and what process that took for him, and, you know, he often reflects on how different it is, and that is the sole reason he goes to Walter Reed, you know, day after day, week after week, to mentor recently injured veterans.
CONAN: Steve, thanks very much for the call.
STEVE: Well, thank you very much. Thanks for allowing me the time. Thank you, Captain.
Retired Capt. BUTLER: Thank you, Steve.
CONAN: Also with us here in Studio 3A is journalist Michael Hastings. In October, he traveled on an Operation Proper Exit trip to Iraq. His chronicle of that experience will appear in the May issue of GQ Magazine, and Michael, it's nice to have you on the program, as well.
Mr. MICHAEL HASTINGS (Contributing Writer, GQ; Author, "I Lost My Love In Baghdad"): Thanks for having me.
CONAN: And this was a return to Iraq for you, too.
Mr. HASTINGS: It was, it was. I had last been in Iraq in January, 2007, and on my last day there before I returned in October, the woman I was planning to marry, my fianc�e, who also worked in Iraq, was killed in an ambush by Sunni insurgents.
And I left Iraq soon after that, completely - my life completely altered. And I know Ferris is actually friends with my younger brother, who's a solder, and when he told me over the summer there was a program where they were returning, they were going to return to Iraq, I immediately said I want to go tell that story. I want to go there with you guys.
CONAN: In a sense, though your body was not shattered, your life was transformed.
Mr. HASTINGS: It certainly was transformed. I don't know what it would be like to lose a limb, but what I do, I think, have some appreciation of is what it means to have the war change your life completely. And was hoping and it was a privilege to go along to watch what was an unprecedented experiment, bringing back veterans, wounded veterans, into an active combat zone.
CONAN: An active combat zone. I mean that we've heard of people returning to Vietnam, certainly to Normandy and places like that, but long afterwards. This is quite different.
Mr. HASTINGS: And, you know, people have raised questions about it, and I had my own questions: Is this even psychologically sound thing to do?
CONAN: Is this a safe ting to do?
Mr. HASTINGS: Is this a safe thing to do? And certainly, there are risks involved, but the gentleman I talked to was actually a psychologist who took the first group of Vietnam PTSD veterans back in 1989. And when he did that, that was considered very controversial. And what he said to me was look, if these guys feel something in their gut that this is something they need to do to recover, trust that instinct.
CONAN: But in those cases, I assume, Ferris Butler, those guys said gee, it's changed so much. You were back I'm sure it hadn't changed all that much.
Retired Capt. BUTLER: No, to the contrary. It was unbelievable the change that I firsthand witnessed. I mean, it was just I was there at the very I was injured December 21, '06, so right at the very beginning of the surge.
CONAN: Of the civil war, year.
Retired Capt. BUTLER: It was a time of, you know, barren farmlands. It was a time of no vehicular traffic. Markets were empty - constant IED attacks, constant firefights throughout the entire nation.
We went when I returned back at the end of January, beginning of February of this year - it was, it was just almost I can't even put it in words how different of a country it was. It was like it was literally kind of, you know, one of those core principles behind this initiative is that we're thriving, and that's exactly what Iraq was doing, in a sense.
The markets were full of people. There was no coalition force presence out in sector, and it was just, it was literally a completely different country.
CONAN: We're talking about Operation Proper Exit. If you're retired military, did you go back? Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
Thousands of American troops have been injured in Iraq over the past seven years. Many come home to recover stateside, thousands of miles from where they were hurt, and that remains that for many, there is little closure for what happened.
An innovative new program called Operation Proper Exit, launched last June, is taking wounded vets back to Iraq while the war is still in progress. So far, 23 people have returned on four trips.
We're joined today by retired U.S. Army Captain Ferris Butler, who lost his left leg and most of his right foot when an IED hit his Humvee December 21, 2006. He made the trip last year excuse me, earlier this year. And we're also joined by journalist Michael Hastings, the only reporter to make a trip with the program.
If you are returned military, did you go back? Tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. And Jeff's(ph) on the line, Jeff calling us from Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
JEFF (Caller): Yes, how are you doing, Neal?
CONAN: I'm well, thanks.
JEFF: I just wanted to share a perspective. First off, I'm not a retired military. I'm still active, and I was not injured. I haven't returned either, physically, but what I do is I maintain voicemail, email and Facebook contact with the local Iraqi people, the Iraqi soldiers, and some of my interpreters. And so in a sense, I never left.
I still hear daily, weekly updates about the areas that I operated in. And so compared to, say, Vietnam veterans, who don't have that access, I don't have to deal with wondering, you know, what became of this place. I hear. I see. I see pictures of these kids that were six, seven years old when I was there, growing up and, you know, enjoying the prosperity that our efforts were able to bring them.
CONAN: So you would agree with Captain Butler's assessment that things are doing much better?
Retired Capt. BUTLER: And how. That is the most underreported story about Iraq. It's nothing sexy. It's nothing dramatic, except to those who have seen how bad it used to be, and I wish it would get more press.
CONAN: Michael Hastings, obviously that kind of access is new, was not available in previous conflicts.
Mr. HASTINGS: Sure, and just from my experience, it is night and day from the civil war of 2007 to how Iraq is now.
CONAN: That was a dark night. We have to remember that.
Mr. HASTINGS: I mean, there were 3,000 people being killed a month. Now it's down to 300, and I think it's important to understand that one of the reasons this program is going forward is because the war is ending for Americans. But there is a conflict that's still going to continue for Iraqis as it moves on.
CONAN: Jeff, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.
JEFF: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Joining us now is Specialist John Hyland, who traveled back to Iraq on an Operation Proper Exit trip. He's with us from the studios of Texas Public Radio in San Antonio, and specialist Hyland, nice to have you with us today.
Specialist JOHN HYLAND (U.S. Army): Thank you, it's great to be here.
CONAN: And you were injured, I guess, in 2007, when your Humvee hit an IED. That will be a familiar story to a lot of veterans. You sustained injuries to your back and pelvis. Your left leg was amputated below the knee. How are you doing?
SPC. HYLAND: I'm doing wonderful, you know, and it's been a long couple of years to recovery, but you know, things are looking up. And I was kind of winding down my time here at Brooke Army Medical Center and ready to take the next step.
CONAN: Has time changed the way you remember what happened?
SPC. HYLAND: It has. You know, my unit was deployed, obviously, when I got hurt, and the time that you lose connection with those folks, it was probably six months before I got to talk to any of them, you know, after they had already redeployed home.
And I got to talk to them and to learn different things about, you know, exactly what happened; you know, seeing pictures. You know, I didn't have any pictures except for what was in my mind. So absolutely, it was a it's changed dramatically, I guess in the details.
CONAN: And it's a long flight all the way to Kuwait City. I wonder what you were thinking.
SPC. HYLAND: Oh, wow. My mind was racing a million miles a minute. I was trying to sleep, even though, you know, they put us in the best seats that they could have on that plane. You know, it was just fighting to get comfortable because I was so antsy thinking about what was to come, and that it was I am so glad that I made that initial step on that plane to fly over.
CONAN: I should say the best seats because the prosthetic devices, the limbs, they need some space.
SPC. HYLAND: Yeah, absolutely, and that's one of the things that, you know, Rick, you know, the president of the Troops First Foundation, makes sure that he made sure that we're comfortable. You know, each one of us has different injuries, and just to have that room to spread out actually makes the journey a lot better.
CONAN: Captain Butler, let me ask you. Do you think that as things wind down, as American forces come out, and it looks like things are moving ahead on schedule - we're always reminded things are fragile there - but nevertheless, do you expect that people will continue to return to Iraq?
Retired Capt. BUTLER: I do. I think it's again, it goes to my point when we were closing down the last segment. The two of the things that stick out in my mind because of my life before the military, I grew up in construction, and traveling literally the entire countryside, there was nothing but residential and commercial construction going on.
So I think as well as down in the Euphrates River Valley, where I was stationed, there was a greenhouse initiative. So all of this leads to the point I'm making - of businesses going into Iraq and, you know, this investment in the rebuilding of Iraq, and I think that's just going to open so many gateways and doorways and paths for people to return back to Iraq, and maybe not even be a part of kind of their own closure, but be a part of rebuilding it in its own way.
CONAN: Let's go next to Evan, Evan calling us from Oakland.
EVAN (Caller): Hi. Yeah, I'm a Vietnam vet. I've still got a little metal around my spine that the doctors didn't want to mess with. And Vietnam was a pretty traumatic experience for me, and as the years went by, it seemed to loom larger and larger in my imagination, both as a traumatic and a confusing place.
And I decided a few years ago that I wanted to sort of confront it. And so what I did was take a plane over to Vietnam and revisited some places that I had familiarity with, in Saigon and Kantoon(ph) in the Mekong and Na Trang on the coast. And I went down the coast a ways. And it was very beneficial for me because I was there as a tourist.
And when I was approaching the airport near Saigon, I looked down, and as we were about to land, I realized that many of the bunkers that had stored American planes were still on the ground.
CONAN: At Ton Son Nhut Air Force Base.
EVAN: That's right, and that kind of scared me for a bit. But as I landed and that was sort of the height of my anxiety. But after we landed, people were friendly, and I actually played the role of a tourist. And so my what I can say is that the trauma isn't all gone, but the edge has been taken off.
CONAN: Was it important to you, Evan, that the people didn't hate you?
EVAN: Very important, yes. They didn't seem well, I mean, I don't know how people actually feel, but outwardly, they were very friendly, and...
CONAN: John Hyland, let me ask you. Was that aspect of this important to you?
SPC. HYLAND: Absolutely. You know, one of the great things that I was able to do was go back to where I lived and where I worked out of, at (unintelligible), Normandy actually, it's called. And I got a chance to you know, the commanders on the ground, everywhere we went there, was able to kind of give us a brief of this is how it was when you were here, and this is how it is now.
One of the most poignant things that they did for me was they showed me, you know, just on a regular 11-by-12 or 8-by-10, you know, sheet of paper, they had four pictures. The two pictures on the top were of what it looked like when I got hurt - very desolate. Everything was ruined. Everything was shot up. Everything was you know, there were no there was nobody on the ground.
And then the bottom two pictures were what it looked like at that time, I guess a couple weeks before I had gotten there. And it's a market now, and there are kids you can see, there are kids playing soccer in this picture, and that was, you know, an opportunity.
Obviously, we couldn't get out and actually talk to the civilians. We got to talk to some of the Iraqi military side, but to actually see the civilians and to get to talk to them, we didn't get to do that, obviously. But you know, just looking at those pictures, it tells me that we made a difference, and at least it's making a difference in their lives, and it was well worth doing it.
CONAN: Evan, before we let you go, I was going to read this email we got from somebody who signs himself Navy Vet in Phoenix. I was a Navy ordinance man in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1968. We provided air support for the Marines during the siege of Khe Sanh. All the aircraft carriers in the Air Force which contributed to that effort dropped 115,000 tons of bombs on that sorry place, four times the explosive force of the A-bomb which destroyed Hiroshima. There were numerous casualties on both sides. Before we even got back to the States later that year, the military had abandoned the outpost. Who would want to go back there? Not me. What a total waste of life. I was so screwed up after that I went AWOL.
EVAN: Well, I can understand how it feels. And I wouldn't by any means advise every vet to go back. But for me, it was very cathartic and useful. And I would say if I had to sum it up, it was about forgiveness. It was about me going back and they've forgiven me, and seeing outward signs of their forgiveness of me and me forgiving them. It was about - that kind of mutual reconciliation that I found quite valuable.
CONAN: Evan, thank you very much for the call. Appreciate it.
EVAN: You're welcome.
CONAN: I should tell you, Michael Hastings, not only did you return physically to Vietnam, another cathartic experience, you wrote a book about it.
Mr. HASTINGS: Returning - going back to Iraq. Yes, I wrote a book about the loss I experienced there.
CONAN: "I Lost My Love in Baghdad: A Modern War Story." Was that cathartic? You have to organize your thoughts. You have to probe your feelings. You have to figure out what your intentions were.
Mr. HASTINGS: It was very cathartic. To me, writing and grieving basically became inseparable. And one of the things I realized was that the trauma that I had experienced when Andi Parhamovich was killed there - she was - that was her name - is that it froze the narrative of Iraq in my mind. And this sort of -and I realize I woke up a couple of years later, you know, almost three years later and thought, you know, I don't know what Iraq is. What happened to those people? What does it mean? Was it just a senseless loss? Can I even begin to try to answer those questions now because the book ends on such a negative note? And I'm a pretty vocal critic of the Iraq war and I'm pretty cynical, as well.
But I think, you know, one of the things that appealed about Operation Proper Exit was this idea of, look, you know, we owe it to ourselves, the people who paid a price for this war to try to figure out and come to terms with what happened in Iraq. I mean, the end of Dispatches, Michael Herrs classic account of Vietnam and...
CONAN: About Khe Sanh, yeah.
Mr. HASTINGS: Yeah, and the last on the book is Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam, we've all been there. Iraq, we haven't all been there. But the people who have, it's probably going to obsess them for the rest of their lives, and certainly left their mark.
CONAN: We're talking with Michael Hastings, a contributing writer to GQ, with Retired Captain Ferris Butler and U.S. Army Specialist John Hyland about Operation Proper Exit. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Let's go next to Ken(ph). Ken's on the line from St. Louis.
KEN (Caller): Hi. Long-time listener. And I just want to say to our veterans, welcome home, since most of us haven't had that. And to our active service members, come home safe and sound.
I'm a Beirut veteran. I was with the first unit into Beirut, Lebanon in '82. And I'm kind of wondering, I mean, how can a program like this do anything for me? I mean, there's nothing for me to go back to. And, I mean, Ive lost huge amounts of friends and, you know, and personnel over there. And the Marines, Navy, we suffered some of the greatest losses from between World War II from Pearl Harbor up to USS Cole. But there's really nothing for us.
CONAN: Nothing - well, in Beirut, there...
KEN: There's no monuments. We're never mentioned. We were pretty much - I mean, we went in with no ammunition and we are pretty much considered the forgotten police action.
CONAN: And I suspect forgiveness would not be the emotions if you returned to Beirut.
KEN: Well, I mean, for me, I mean, there's - I mean, we were sequestered. There was - I mean, if we go back to warehouses we were stationed at - I mean, personally, when I went in, I was there three times in one cruise. We were there to pull civilians out and take them to the Greek side of Cyprus.
KEN: We're there for - to pull the Lebanese out. And then we were there after the bombing of the Beirut International Airport. So, really, I mean, going back to the airport is pretty much the only thing left. And then after Fort Apache, then again, we all know there's nothing really left there because they bulldozed and rebuilt that.
KEN: Pretty much everything that we knew, at least as far as the units that I was with, there's nothing left to go back to. I mean, the only thing we - I mean, we couldn't even go around the city because, again, we were unarmed. We had no way to defend ourselves.
CONAN: And, Ken, I'm not sure anybody is proposing that Operation Proper Exit or its equivalent is going to be a panacea. It's not for everybody nor is it obviously for every place. Beirut is one of those places...
CONAN: ...where it's not going to be appropriate. But nevertheless, do you go back there in your mind?
KEN: Actually, I went back there a few years back when I was stationed on the LPD-13, the USS Nashville. And during the Beirut-Israeli conflict, they sent the Nashville back in and they said that some of - my fellow Marines were still stationed, going back after 25 years. And I had a lot of serious problems with that. I mean, for almost three weeks afterwards, I couldn't sleep, just because I was just worried that I was going to lose more of my brothers.
CONAN: More of your brothers. Ken, thank you very much for the call. I wish you peace.
KEN: Thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we get one more caller in before we have to go. Let's go next to - this is Sherry(ph). Sherry with us from southern Illinois.
SHERRY (Caller): Hi.
CONAN: Hi, Sherry.
SHERRY: I just wanted to say I think what this - your guest is doing is very appropriate, and I think it's very individually helpful and also probably to the families its helpful. My own experience was my dad was a very young Marine - 1st Marine Division in World War II on Okinawa. It's hard for me to talk about this.
He was tremendously affected by his experience there and never spoke of his experiences, except to say that - he frequently said that he would wish somehow he could go back. And as God would have it, as he got older, my sister happened to be working in the Far East, she had an apartment in Okinawa. And he took a month and went to stay with her and did visit there.
SHERRIE: It was very - it was healing, that it was very helpful to him. When he came home, he said, that's all I wanted to do. He said, now, I'm ready to go. So I really feel for your guest. I think he's doing, you know, what he's done is very appropriate and it's helpful to a lot of people.
CONAN: All right, Sherry. Thank you very much for sharing that. We appreciate it. And it's interesting - we just have a few seconds left, Captain Butler, but so many veterans of the Second World War didn't talk. In an odd way, we are talking more about people's experiences and what they went through in Afghanistan and Iraq than maybe we did in previous wars.
Capt. BUTLER: You're absolutely right. I think, you know, it's interesting that that last call is, you know, the show being premiered on HBO right now, "The Pacific," is...
CONAN: Going to take us to Okinawa before it's done. Yeah.
Capt. BUTLER: Exact battles, correct. So, you know, I think it's - I think it has to be said that I think we understand the healing process better now and I think we understand the consequences that are paid.
CONAN: Captain Butler, Specialist Hyland and Michael Hastings, thank you all very much for your time today. We appreciate it. We're talking about Operation Proper Exit. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.