Seeking To Heal, Wounded Warriors Return To Iraq When soldiers sustain traumatic injuries, the psychological damage may be the hardest to repair. In Operation Proper Exit, veterans return to Iraq for a week -- including a visit to the place where they sustained the injuries that dramatically changed their lives.
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Seeking To Heal, Wounded Warriors Return To Iraq

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Seeking To Heal, Wounded Warriors Return To Iraq

Seeking To Heal, Wounded Warriors Return To Iraq

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And if some Americans long for home, other Americans are returning to a war zone one more time, hoping for closure. This story takes us to Iraq, where an unprecedented experimental program aims to help to heal the deepest wounds of war: psychological wounds. It's called Operation Proper Exit. The wounded vets revisit Iraq and go to the exact place where they sustained the injuries that changed their lives.

NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Baghdad.

Unidentified Man: Test. One, two, three...

DEBORAH AMOS: The welcome begins in the echo-y halls of an Iraqi palace - one of Saddam's headquarters, now Camp Liberty, an American base.

The guests arrive in VIP style - business class for the long flight over, then black SUVs deliver them to the palace curbside. It's a short walk to the thundering applause of hundreds of men and women in uniform.

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

Mr. DEREK BRADSHAW: Traumatic brain injury, broke my left arm pretty bad, a few facial fractures, unconscious.

AMOS: Twenty-eight-year-old Derek Bradshaw is one of seven men on this trip. The program provides a week in Iraq. They walk on stage under their own power prosthetic legs unseen under baggy uniforms and desert boots. Twenty-eight-year-old Joseph James says at first, he was anxious about being in a place he left in agony.

Mr. JOSEPH JAMES: I got hit by an IED, April 8th, 2008.

AMOS: First time you're back?

Mr. JAMES: It blows my mind, actually. It's very overwhelming to be around this area again after a couple of years.

AMOS: Each veteran will visit the site where he was hit. It's the hardest duty, but one that James believes will bring the most relief.

Mr. JAMES: I can go to the site where I almost died and I can say, you know what? This is the start of a new life. I can take my retirement with a lighter heart.

AMOS: They tell their personal stories one by one, short accounts that for the most part downplay their injuries. Afterwards, the troops line up for handshakes, thank-yous and emotional back slaps.

Mr. MICHAEL CAMPBELL: I would do it again tomorrow, if I could. I'd love too.

AMOS: Michael Campbell, 28, tells each well-wisher he regrets nothing. He would re-enlist if he could. After an explosion in 2007, he was unable to speak for two years. His recovery is remarkable, but he has a long way to go.

Now what does it feel like to be here? Does it help you?

Mr. CAMPBELL: Yeah, it does. It's weird. There's, you know, no gun with me, and so I feel kind of naked, you know, without a rifle.

AMOS: The idea for this program came from wounded veterans themselves. Rick Kell, who volunteers at Water Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. and runs a foundation called Troops First helped to make it happen, winning approval from the military command and the Army's surgeon general.

Mr. RICK KELL (Volunteer, Walter Reed Army Medical Center): I can tell you that I've seen 49 men change in front of my eyes. I've received letters from wives that say - thanking me for bringing their husbands back from Iraq after they'd already been home for two years.

AMOS: There are no medical studies on the healing properties of revisiting battlegrounds, but veterans have been organizing trips for generations, from World War I to Vietnam. But Iraq is different. It's still a conflict zone, and no one can say if the program can continue after the U.S. troop withdrawal next year.

Mr. ALEXANDER REYES: The IED was buried right underneath my feet where I was walking. When they detonated, I thought I was dead that day. But thanks to God, I survived and I have a second chance in life.

AMOS: And for 25-year-old Alexander Reyes, that second chance was underlined in a reunion with his brother, now stationed in Iraq. The bigger surprise: the dramatic changes in a country at war when he left.

Mr. REYES: We could see that it's not in vain, because back in '06, '07, you have to live with the high security level, the uneasiness. Now, I can finally relax.

AMOS: Who do you think this program helps more: you or the soldiers who are watching you?

Mr. REYES: Everybody. It's a win-win situation, ma'am.

AMOS: Those chosen for this program have already made progress in coping with their injuries, mentally and physically. Perhaps they're a symbol to the troops here to honor them, how a few brave men have dealt with the scars of this war.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Baghdad.

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