KABUL — Capt. Samuel Brown’s last memory of Afghanistan was the hurried chatter of the doctors and nurses trying to save his life. Horribly burned, with bandages over his eyes, he wasn’t sure he would live, let alone ever return to the country.
Four years later, Brown was back in Afghanistan, inhaling the familiar woodsmoke smell and preparing to board a plane for Kandahar province, where everything went so wrong on a September day in 2008.
Brown landed in Kabul on Wednesday, among the first group of wounded troops to return to Afghanistan with the program Operation Proper Exit, which aims to help injured veterans come to grips with what happened to them by bringing them back to the country where they were hurt.
Eight soldiers and Marines — seven of whom lost limbs — made the trip. It was an emotional return for some.
Speaking to a couple hundred troops at a dining hall at the Kabul headquarters of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan, the eight vets shared their stories of struggle and recovery.
Brown, 29, who suffered severe facial disfigurement and lost a finger to a roadside bomb blast, led with a joke.
“We’ve lost accountability of some sensitive items; so if you guys can keep an eye out for some arms, legs, maybe a finger …”
The crowd roared with laughter.
Marine Staff Sgt. Glen Silva, 40, explained his reasons for being there.
“We’re here because we choose; we’re the ones … not the enemy, who decide how we live,” said Silva, who lost a leg and suffered severe internal injuries when he was hit by a bomb while on a foot patrol in Helmand province in 2010.
Some carried a message for the military. Army Staff Sgt. (ret.) Earl Granville broke down when he told the audience that his brother, also a soldier, took his own life.
“One thing I would like to mention to the leadership out there,” he said. “This is a serious problem in the military, and we need a little more than just PowerPoints and commercials by Alec Baldwin.”
Marine Gunnery Sgt. Micah Wilson, 37, of New Orleans, was in the audience and said hearing from the wounded veterans was a wake-up call to be ready for the possibility of getting injured in Afghanistan. Wilson said most troops think about dying in the war zone, but don’t always mentally prepare for life-changing injuries.
“No one really thinks about that gray area, where you’re broken or you lose a limb,” he said. “I think looking at that adds another perspective.”
Operation Proper Exit started as an initiative of the Troops First Foundation, a nonprofit group offering assistance to wounded servicemembers. Sixty-eight wounded veterans from the Iraq War went back there as part of the initial program.
Unlike the Iraq program, where veterans went to the very spot of their injury, the Afghanistan veterans will stick to large bases in the country, for reasons of security and logistics, said David Lakin, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Instead, they are holding a series of town hall meetings with currently deployed troops across the country and getting briefings from commanders on the situation in Afghanistan.
Troops First co-founder Rick Kell, who is traveling with the group, said the program is aimed at giving closure to wounded veterans who are far enough along in their recovery, both physically and emotionally, to benefit from returning to Afghanistan and leaving on their own terms.
“It’s a challenge for them, but in addition to the challenge, they were all able to see … that the work they did was not in vain,” he said.
With a seemingly stalemated military effort in Afghanistan, though, and regular violence plaguing the country, the program certainly involves risks. A day after the group left Kabul for Kandahar, a suicide bomber in the capital injured Afghanistan’s intelligence chief.
Asked about the risks involved with bringing veterans back to an active war zone, Kell pointed to the myriad USO programs that bring celebrities to meet with deployed troops.
“If the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders can come here, so can we,” he said.
Frank Ochberg, a psychiatrist and an expert in the treatment of traumatic stress, cautions that participants need to be carefully screened and that intensive study of the outcomes for the wounded vets is needed to assess the long-term effects of such a program.
“My first thought is, it’s not for everyone,” he said.
But, he said, the program’s goals are laudable and he sees the exchange between injured veterans and currently deployed troops as especially beneficial.
“There is a two-way conversation,” he said. “These vets who have been injured — external injuries and internal injuries — are in a position to speak about consequences and all that goes with being disfigured, being maimed. They are able to teach others how to prepare for it.”
Brown’s story started with a call for help from A platoon under fire. As his Humvee sped down a dirt road toward them on Sept. 4, 2008, there was a flash and then he was on fire, desperately trying to extinguish the flames. His driver, Pvt. Vincent Winston Jr., was killed.
Looking at photos of the charred and twisted remains of Brown’s Humvee, it’s hard to imagine anyone surviving the horrific explosion and subsequent fire that engulfed his vehicle. He endured months of skin grafts and agonizing pain, but he says he would change nothing. Since his injury, he married and had a son; another child is on the way. He is working on a business that helps other wounded veterans find entrepreneurial opportunities. His ordeal, he says, has made him a better person.
More than the pain, it was guilt that gnawed at him after getting hurt, as it does for many wounded veterans.
“The actual injury itself hurts physically, but it breaks your heart to know you’re being separated from the guys you were serving with, and they’re going to have to continue to put themselves in harm’s way,” he said. “Even though we were the ones who were injured, we have regret and remorse that we let our buddies down.”
He hopes his visit to Afghanistan will allow him to pay homage to Winston, his fallen driver.
“I’m going to go back to where he gave his life and honor that, and leave on my own terms,” Brown said. “It has a lot of symbolic meaning to it.”