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By Sgt. Thomas Crough
U.S. Army Central
Operation Proper Exit is an initiative launched in 2009 for wounded warfighters to return to theater as part of their personal recovery and to meet with currently deployed service members. OPE now includes Gold Star Family members in addition to wounded warriors.
“They are both tragic events … a lot of the wounded are still somewhat positive because they are still here, but the Gold Star Family member is the wife, son, brother of someone who didn’t come home,” said Master Sgt. Leroy Petry, retired Army Ranger and Medal of Honor Recipient. “They now get to see what they went through … tell their story and see the brotherhood. To know that their family member or loved one was doing what they loved, around people that they loved as well.”
Petry was shot in both thighs and lost his arm below the elbow to an enemy grenade, May 26, 2008 in Paktika Province, Afghanistan.
Jane Horton, the Gold Star wife of Spc. Christopher Horton, an Army sniper killed in action on September 9, 2011 in Paktia, Afghanistan, helped push for Gold Star families to come on trips to where their loved ones were killed.
“It’s something that a lot of us deeply want to do. I feel like the other half of my heart is in Afghanistan; my husband’s blood is in the soil over there, he gave his last breath there,” said Horton. “I wanted to see first-hand, where this place is that my husband gave his life. I talked to a lot of other Gold Star Family members. It’s something that a lot of us want to do…I pushed as hard as I could for 4 years and it was the greatest honor of my life to get over and talk to troops and be able to see where my husband gave his life.”
Diana Pike, a former Army Sgt. 1st class and Gold Star mother of Chief Petty Officer Christian M. Pike, had a unique perspective that helped bridge the gap between the wounded, family members and current service members. Her son died March 13, 2013 from combat injuries he sustained March 10, 2013 in the Maiwand District of Afghanistan.
“I had a very clear understanding of what my son did in the military because I did the same thing in the Army when I was in the Army but I just wanted to see where he was and see what Afghanistan was like for him. Just to be closer to him, maybe to help me move forward in my own grief of his absence,” said Pike.
Operation Proper Exit helps provide this closure through traveling to theater, sharing experiences and making connections within the military community.
“I think I can help them (Gold Star Family members) because I have an understanding of what the services are about,” continued Pike. “The processes that happen after, the kind of care they received with regards for the outreach of the military community, I think I can help them in that way because I went through that and I understand how the military works.”
“I try to share with them as much as I can, but I try to listen more, to who their family member was, what their experience was, not only in the military but what they were like outside of the military … I want to know any questions they have that I can possibly answer and as we create that bond and they ask more questions I am able to share with them more,” said Petry.
After telling their individual experiences, the official party opened up for a question and answer session followed by a meet-and-greet with those in attendance.
“Honestly, it’s just hanging out with troops. For me that’s the best kind of therapy there is,” said Staff Sgt. Luke Cifka, retired Army infantryman.
“One of the things you realize when you get out of the military is that’s what you miss the most, that camaraderie, and brotherhood. In the couple hours we’ve been here I’ve gotten to reconnect with that sense of camaraderie and esprit de corps.”
Cifka stepped on a pressure plate improvised explosive device May 31, 2013, Logar, Afghanistan, resulting in bilateral above-knee amputation.
In addition to personal growth and healing, OPE focuses on passing along information to the currently deployed warfighter.
“What I typically like to get across to the service members when I come out here is my actions, my recovery, resiliency, as well as say thanks to them and their family for their sacrifices, as well as a little bit of professional leadership development…they ask what recovery was like – they ask what we are doing now…a lot of these questions are great questions – we will never turn down any question – that’s when I get the biggest take away – during the question and answers,” said Petry.
“The leadership aspect, teaching your Soldiers what to do, if you get hurt…I had a very small team and after I got injured, that junior soldier is now in charge. So hopefully imparting a little bit of wisdom, of what happened to us – that would be my biggest goal,” said Cifka.
U.S. ARMY RESERVE
DEPT. OF DEFENSE
U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND
DEPT. OF HOMELAND SECURITY
BEST WARRIOR COMPETITION