I was nervous to take those first steps off that C-130. The last time I was in Iraq, the result was not what I envisioned. I was shot in the face, just south of Baghdad, and blacked out for a minute afterwards, When I regained consciousness, I saw a large puddle of blood – MY blood. I had visions of what others would say to my wife when I didn’t make it home. That experience subsequently led to years of recovery.
This day was different, though. As I stepped off that bird at Camp Liberty – part of the BIAP compound at Baghdad International Airport – we were greeted by an Air Force band playing music and inviting the eight of us back into this country where we nearly lost our lives. We were then welcomed into a palace with several hundred troops in attendance. They all wanted to hear what we had to say and, deep down, they wanted to know why in the world we would come back here.
When it was my time to take the microphone and address the huge crowd, I told them that it was hard to step off that plane, but that as a result of their dedication to their mission and their vision of a free Iraq, I felt safe. I also told them, “When I was here on deployment, just like all of you, I couldn’t wait to leave. However the way I made that exit wasn’t right, and from the very first minutes I was hospitalized in Baghdad, I wanted to come back. I couldn’t wait for the opportunity to leave on my own terms, not strapped to a stretcher or on a medevac airplane.”
Our trip was known as “Operation Proper Exit 9” because this was the ninth time that the Troops First Foundation had enabled wounded veterans to have the opportunity to know what it feels like to leave “theater” under their own power. During the entire week we were treated as distinguished guests, including being assigned a personal security detail (PSD) to go with us everywhere and help keep us safe. Our trip took us on hours of helicopter tours over the areas where each of us was injured, and to military bases where some of us had been stationed. One universal element we all shared was Balad Air Force Base Hospital, where each of us, differing in ages and injuries, was treated or stabilized. We got the chance to talk with all of the ER staff there and thank them for taking such good care of us, as well as others that we know back in the “states.”
We also saw new technologies that help to keep our current troops safer, such as a revolutionary MRAP vehicle, which is used to detect IEDs, as well as for patrolling. It is unbelievably heavy and has a V-shaped bottom to direct blasts away from the vehicle; we were told it helps improve a soldier’s chances of surviving a bomb or IED blast by around 75 percent, which are great odds. Likewise, we were shown a C-RAM system, which detects incoming rounds, projects their point of impact and, if safe, will use a “mini-gun” to shoot the rounds out of the sky.
It was amazing to observe the differences from when we were there to how it is now. The Army did a great job of demonstrating to us how our injuries and time “in country” helped to contribute to a safer Iraq. For the first time in 65 years, people there are now able to protest concern over the operations of the military, the government and the infrastructure. They have never had that chance and we helped give it to them. We met a lot of great commanders and sergeant majors, all of whom conveyed just how much they appreciated our deployments, our sacrifices and that of our families.
Perhaps most importantly, our group had the chance to revisit the places where each of us got hurt, or “hit,” which helped to leave some of those painful feelings behind. Our base still received incoming mortar rounds almost daily. Although the detection systems they have in place are much better, a mortar round doesn’t discriminate who it hits or where.
I left Iraq thankful for the opportunity to walk onto the plane that carried us safely back to the blessed United States. On the flight from Kuwait, our group was talking to the plane’s captain, a reserve helicopter pilot who had done multiple tours in Afghanistan and was due back within months. He was the first person to notify us about the death of Osama Bin Laden, who was responsible for turning our country inside out, killing many innocent civilians and really starting the global War on Terror. It was great news on which to end a great trip. This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I’m very glad I went. I now know what it feels like have a “proper exit” and I’m forever grateful. Semper Fidelis!
Cpl. Donny Daughenbaugh, USMC (ret.)
(Editor’s Note: Retired Marine Cpl. Donny Daughenbaugh, one of the national spokesmen for the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes, was recently among eight veterans invited by the Troops First Foundation to spend a week back in Iraq, where he was seriously wounded in 2004. He wrote this blog entry upon his return.)