Wounded war fighters show resilience, get closure in return visit to Afghanistan
KABUL, Afghanistan — Justin Lane recalls being “blown up three separate times” while clearing U.S. military routes from improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011.
The third blast penetrated the Army specialist’s armored vehicle and took off both of his legs, severing the middle finger on his right hand and his spine from his pelvic bone.
“So they had to cut me down my perfectly chiseled abs and do 28 surgeries to put me back together,” Lane, now retired, told a crowd at NATO’s Resolute Support Headquarters.
It was the final event of a tour of Afghanistan that he and six other wounded American warfighters made over several days as part of operation Proper Exit.
The initiative, organized by Feherty’s Troops First Foundation, brings post-9/11 combat veterans and families of fallen servicemembers to theater to get closure from their experiences and to exchange stories with troops currently deployed.
Retired Army Staff Sgt. John Hosea, whose platoon vehicle struck a 500-pound IED near the border with Pakistan in 2012, was “dead for about 27 minutes” before medics brought him back to life.
“We’ve all overcome a bunch of things ... now we’re giving it back and trying to help all those out there and all those people who helped us: the nurses, the doctors. So that’s why we’re back here,” said Hosea, who now has a titanium rod for a femur. “The whole point of this is to come back and get our closure.”
Since 2009, more than 50 wounded servicemembers have returned to Afghanistan on operation Proper Exit trips.
Speaking to the crowd of coalition forces and contractors on Saturday, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. John Nicholson, thanked the seven returnees, calling them heroes.
“Our duty is to deliver on your sacrifice,” Nicholson said. “This fight against terror is the most important fight in the world. The costs of failure are unimaginable.”
“Know that each of you are an inspiration to all of us and the way that you are connecting with individuals, with units, with people here is going to have a lasting impact on this mission and everyone here,” he said.
Nicholson went on to commend several Afghan soldiers who were wounded in action and who attended the ceremony.
Roughly 15,000 U.S. troops are currently deployed to Afghanistan. New rules allowing troops to embed with Afghans on the front lines have raised concerns that American casualties could rise in the months ahead.
More 2,400 U.S. servicemembers have been killed here since the war began in 2001. More than 20,000 have been wounded. Nearly 1,140 other coalition troops have also died in the war.
Two men who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder were among the seven who took part in the Proper Exit visit, which ended Sunday.
Former Army Staff Sgt. Jaymes Poling — who was deployed to Afghanistan three times and engaged in several firefights — writes about veterans’ issues and helped establish a nonprofit organization that works to create dialogue between civilian and military communities.
“If we look at society we kind of see veterans portrayed in three different ways: They’re either portrayed as liabilities or as damaged in some way or as heroes, and it’s easy for a lot of us to sit there and say, ‘OK we’re not this hero, so are we damaged or are we in this liability group?’” Poling said.
“If we can look at someone who survives cancer and say, ‘This person’s stronger now,’ then we can look at someone who survives combat and deals with the stress related to it and say, ‘This person has the opportunity to be stronger now also,’” he added.
A fellow PTSD sufferer, Navy Cmdr. William Danchanko is a doctor and a nurse practitioner. He was deployed to Kandahar Air Field in 2010, where he worked in the trauma center, where he said he treated 6,000 wounded people in less than 200 days.
“It took a toll. I don’t think I was really wired for that,” Danchanko said.
He said returning to Afghanistan helped him.
“The last time I saw people like this, they were laying on a gurney and I was trying to figure out how to make them not die,” he said. “I got a happy ending finally.”