Operation Proper Exit allows wounded warriors to visit Afghanistan one last time
The first time Cole Rich left Afghanistan, it was with a hole in his head.
On his last visit, the retired sergeant major left with a smile on his face.
In recent months, current and former Fort Bragg soldiers have been returning to Afghanistan to see the country one last time before the war's end.
The soldiers, who were wounded in Afghanistan, have returned as part of Operation Proper Exit, an initiative of the nonprofit Troops First Program.
Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Thomas Capel, who left the Army late last year after 36 years, accompanied Rich on his Afghanistan visit earlier this year.
In 2002, Capel was Rich's sergeant major, with both men serving with the 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division.
He recalled hearing that Rich, then a first sergeant, was shot in the head while on a routine patrol near Fire Base Shin, a small base along the Pakistani border.
Capel said he was there when Rich was flown to Forward Operating Base Salerno and saw the soldier argue with medics - insisting that he didn't want to be carried on a stretcher.
Rich didn't want to be taken out of the fight, Capel said. He didn't want to leave Afghanistan.
"It hit below the belt," Capel said of Rich's injuries. "It was hard to digest."
In the years following Rich's injury, Capel made his career in Afghanistan, serving seven years in various posts, including as the top enlisted soldier in the country.
He's helped to bring Rich back to Afghanistan several times during that span.
The latest trip, he said, was overwhelming and exciting.
Capel described hundreds of troops lining up to greet the wounded warriors who traveled as part of Operation Proper Exit.
"It's something you've never seen before," he said of the troops clapping and cheering. "Like rock stars."
He said the soldiers also met with wounded Afghan troops, with more than a dozen lining up to thank and embrace their American counterparts during one such meeting.
Capel said the trips were healing for the veterans, who have often lost limbs, their sight or have other major injuries. It's also a motivator for troops still serving overseas and a morale boost for soldiers to see their wounded friends again.
'We should do it'
According to the Troops First Foundation, the initiative is focused on providing unique opportunities for wounded warriors to see progress in Afghanistan and allow them to leave the country on their own terms.
The latest Operation Proper Exit trip involving a Fort Bragg soldier was earlier this month, when Capt. Ivan Castro visited southern Afghanistan.
Castro, who lost his vision in Iraq in 2006, now serves with Army Special Operations Command. He met with other wounded warriors and discussed his injuries and recovery with troops in Afghanistan.
Capel said opportunities for wounded warriors to return to Afghanistan are becoming more rare, but not less important.
"It's a time game," he said. "But as long as we have troops on the battlefield, we should do it."