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Operation Proper Exit Helps Injured Combat Vets Heal Emotional Wounds

Story by Sgt. Lindsey Bradford

BAGHDAD - Alive day is a term dubbed by a number of injured combat veterans to describe the day they escaped death. Some were left with scrapes and bruises, others lost their limbs and, for some, there would be emotional wounds they will struggle with for the rest of their lives.

Five combat veterans returned to Iraq, Dec. 28, as part of the program Operation Proper Exit, to revisit the places they were injured in hopes of finding emotional closure.

This is the third time this year Operation Proper Exit, sponsored by the Troops First Foundation, has brought troops to Iraq to participate in the week-long event.

The five soldiers come from different backgrounds, different ranks and have different stories to tell. What they share is an understanding of living life as a wounded combat veteran.

Sgt. Bill Congleton joined the Marine Corps in October 1998 and gave the Corps 10 years before joining the Army in October 2003. Originally from Sutherlin, Ore., Congleton served with the Oregon National Guard and deployed to Iraq in 2004. He was two miles outside Camp Taji when he was struck by an improvised explosive device June 23, 2004. He suffered a below-the-knee amputation of his right leg and an incomplete spinal cord injury. His left foot was able to be salvaged after multiple surgeries. He retired from the Army in June of 2006.

Sgt. 1st Class Mike Schlitz, an Army Ranger, joined the service in March 1996. The Moline, Ill., native was on his first tour, serving with Fort Drum's 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, when he was hit by an IED device, Feb. 27, 2007. Schlitz suffered burns covering 85 percent of his body, lost both hands, suffers vision loss and has a limited range of motion.

First Lt. Jim Kirchner, now retired, joined the Army in 1986. He was serving on his first tour to Iraq when his forward operating base in Mahmoudyiah was attacked with mortars. The Douglasville, Ga., native suffered injuries to his right arm, back and had internal organ damage.

Capt. Sam Brown was commissioned in the Army in March 2006 after graduating from West Point. Brown, a San Antonio native, was serving with Fort Hood's 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division , in Kandahar, Afghanistan, when he was struck by an IED in September 2008. He suffered third degree burns to 30 percent of his body, including his face. Although Brown was serving in Afghanistan when he was injured, he came to Iraq because his wife, Capt. Amy Brown, is currently attached to the 47th Combat Support Hospital from Fort Lewis, Wash., and because, he said, he wants to speak to others about his experiences.

Sgt. 1st Class Joshua Olson first came to Iraq as a part of Operation Proper Exit in October of this year. He is returning as a military mentor for his fellow soldiers. Olson of Spokane, Wash., joined the Army in November 1997. He was on his first tour in Tel a Far, Iraq, when he was injured Oct. 27, 2003, by a rocket-propelled grenade blast. His right leg was amputated at the hip. He continues to serve on the United States Marksmanship Unit at Fort Benning, Ga.

The soldiers will spend the next six days travelling throughout Iraq with Command Sgt. Maj. Lawrence Wilson, Multi-National Force-Iraq command sergeant major, visiting the places they experienced their own "alive day."

"We welcome these heroes. They are here to heal, and we are here to help them do that," Wilson said.

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