Wounded US vets return to Afghanistan to confront demons

SEVEN years ago, Jose Navarro’s platoon was ambushed and nearly overrun by Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. The troops found themselves pinned down, desperately calling for air strikes. Bullets ripped through Navarro’s stomach, and medics at one point thought he was dead. But this week, after dozens of surgeries, Navarro returned to Afghanistan in an army uniform, flying in a military helicopter with another soldier wounded in the same attack. “I wanted to walk out of here on my two feet. Last time I was here I got shot in my stomach and got an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) through my leg,” he told AFP.
Washington is winding down its 32,000 troop deployment in Afghanistan after nearly 13 years of war, with President Barack Obama announcing this week that all US forces will leave by the end of 2016. While an end is now in sight for America’s longest war, many of the more than 19,000 Americans wounded in Afghanistan will be coping with injuries for years to come. And, at home, the wounded vets are now facing another fight, struggling to secure medical treatment in the face of incessant bureaucratic delays blamed on the Obama administration’s Veterans Affairs department.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned on Friday, paying the price for an expanding scandal over failures in health care for America’s retired warriors. The president said that an initial review by Shinseki, 71, had found that delays and other management failures in veterans’ health care were systemic and nationwide. Although elderly veterans often revisit battlefields decades after they fought, Navarro and some other former soldiers are returning to a country still at war, to try to conquer painful memories.
The return trip was organised by the Troops First charity under its “Operation Proper Exit” programme, which is designed to give wounded US soldiers a chance to write a new epilogue to their tour of duty. After the ambush, Navarro spent five years in hospital and underwent more than 100 operations. On his trip back to Afghanistan, the former staff sergeant was accompanied by a “mentor”, Joshua Ben, who was in the same 82nd Airborne Division platoon encircled that day in Wardak province. Twelve men in the 16-member unit were wounded in the ambush. Ben was hit by an RPG at nearly point-blank range and his right leg had to be amputated above the knee.
It was his second visit to Afghanistan since his deployment in 2007, and he hoped to be a reassuring presence for Navarro. “Last year, I didn’t know what to expect. I’m more relaxed this time. The first time, I was pretty nervous,” Ben said. After he returned home from the war to recover, Ben initially was too spooked to even look at Navarro. Immediately after the ambush, Navarro was presumed dead and Ben saw medics pull a sheet over his friend’s face. Navarro pulled through but the image haunted Ben. “That was the last memory I had of him. It took a while before I could talk to him,” Ben said.
Now he is helping Navarro confront his own terrors and ghosts. Ben, Navarro and four other veterans wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan began a tour this week that will take them to US bases across Afghanistan. At Bagram air field, they made their way to waiting US troops slowly, sometimes hobbling on their prosthetic limbs. They were greeted by applause and queues of soldiers eager to shake their hands. “Good to have you back,” one soldier told them.
The founder of the Troops First charity, Rick Kell, said that when the trips were launched, the idea was to bring soldiers as close as possible to where they had been wounded. However, he said, it became clear that “geography is important but brotherhood is more important” — the former soldiers want to put on a uniform again and tap into the camaraderie of being part of the military. “They are still part of the brotherhood, and they want everybody to know they feel that way,” Kell said. At the Bagram base hospital, the veterans were clearly moved by the sight of the emergency room where they were first treated for their wounds.
Military nurses and physicians wiped away tears as they heard the veterans thank them for helping them heal. “If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be alive,” said Colin Rich, who was shot in the head in eastern Afghanistan in the early days of the war in 2002. Hospital staff asked to take pictures with Rich, who is partially blind from the bullet that hit the back of his head and damaged his brain. Earlier, Rich and other veterans got a chance to fire sniper rifles and an assortment of heavy weapons at a range at Forward Operating Base Shank, in Logar province. After a few tries, Rich managed a direct hit at a target hundreds of metres away. “I still got it,” he said, laughing. 

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