STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Adam Hartswick is going back to Afghanistan.
Through a program called Operation Proper Exit, the Pine Grove Mills soldier will visit the region where a bomb blast tore through his legs on May 14, 2013.
The program’s organizers fly military personnel to the areas where they were wounded in action, in the hopes of helping them find peace of mind.
Hartswick has undergone 18 surgeries and is still recovering at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., although he gets home to Centre County often.
Hartswick said he expects to experience “mixed feelings” in July, when he gazes on the spot where an improvised explosive device claimed his legs and killed or injured several other soldiers 14 months earlier.
“I expect that there will be a moment or two at the very least when I have strong emotions,” he said. “I’m not entirely sure how close we’re going to get to where I was wounded that day. But I’ll be emotional.”
Coming home from Afghanistan a second time will bring strong feelings as well, he said.
“The way I exited last time, it’s going to be nice to leave on a better note,” Hartswick said. “The last time it was torn away from me. I didn’t get to come home with my brothers. And I know there’s guys who won’t ever come home, in a way.”
Operation Proper Exit is offered by the Troops First Foundation, a Laurel, Md., organization that supports veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in such areas as re-integration and relationships.
The operation is for injured soldiers “who are thriving in recovery and are capable of returning to theater,” the foundation’s website says.
The upcoming visit is the group’s final guaranteed mission into Afghanistan due to the planned pullout of U.S. troops.
“It’s pretty neat what they do,” said Sean Hartswick, Adam’s father and a 34-year military veteran. “They keep them safe, take them back to ground zero where they got injured.”
The program allows those soldiers to leave a battle area “on their own terms as they walk to the aircraft and climb the ramp rather than being medically evacuated,” the organization says. “This component has a positively resounding effect in offering closure to that chapter of their lives.”
Sean Hartswick said his son has pieced together memories of that day through conversations with other soldiers and video footage from a Medevac helicopter that was there.
“Getting in-country and going back to where it all was, having a look around, hopefully he can tie everything else together,” Sean Hartswick said.
Hartswick’s mother, Morgen Hummel, said the news that her son would be going back to Afghanistan was unsettling, but she embraces his opportunity.
“Well, he can’t shock me any more than, ‘Mom, I lost my legs,’ ” Hummel said. “When he told me he wanted to do this, my first thought was, ‘Of course, this is something you have to do. You were dragged out of there by that IED. You have to go back and look it in the face and get some closure about it.’ ”
Hummel knows there will be risks for her son and others making the trip with Operation Proper Exit, despite the presence of special services personnel who will accompany them.
“I’m confident this is a good thing for him, and that he’ll be safe,” she said. “I’m OK with this.
“When he was going off to basic training, he assured me that he had made peace with his maker should the worst happen,” Hummel added. “That’s always been a comfort to me.”
Hartswick, an Army combat medic, was providing aid to an ambushed platoon when he either stepped on the IED or it was detonated near him. He lost his legs above the knees, and his right index finger was badly damaged.
Although severely injured, Hartswick instructed a soldier on how to apply tourniquets to his legs, saving his own life.
In addition to the numerous surgeries, he has been through countless hours of rehabilitation. Last fall, standing on titanium legs, Hartswick took part in the Penn State-Purdue football game for Military Appreciation Day at Beaver Stadium. Through it all, he’s been very grateful for the support he’s received from the community.
Hartswick said May 2014 was a “very emotional month.”
In 2013, he was still on medication and beginning extensive medical treatment, and Memorial Day 2013 didn’t offer any memories. This year, though, he has a “clear head” and he thought a lot about the day he was wounded, the day some of his buddies didn’t survive, which added to his gratitude.
He now has been given the latest in prosthetic knees with microprocessors built into them. A computer reads data from his movements and can update settings, he said.
“Thought-controlled prosthetics, for legs and arms, are the next thing,” Harts-wick said. “They will make life easier. The public needs to keep pushing for those.”
And Hartswick will keep pushing his recovery.
“I’ve had ups and downs,” he said. “Overall, I’ve kept moving forward.”
Soon, moving forward will mean going back — to the place where his life changed forever.
“Adam doesn’t miss his legs, he misses his buddies,” Sean Hartswick said. “If this helps with that, it’s a good thing.”