(On the left is myself and on the right is USMC CPL, Brandon Rumbaugh.)
This is the first of several blog posts about my return trip to Afghanistan.
Almost six years ago after being severely wounded in combat, I cried tears of joy in my hospital bed at Brooke Army Medical Center because I knew I would never have to go back to Afghanistan again. No longer would I go to bed at night wondering if the next day would be my last. This was one of the happiest feelings of my life, but it was short lived. After a couple of months, I started thinking about Afghanistan all the time. I missed the people, culture, terrain, firefights, missions, sense of purpose and pride. Memories were invoked simply by experiencing a random sight, smell or sound. On hikes I would think about what I would do if I were ambushed. Instead of appreciating the beauty of nature, I would think abut how I could tactically use the terrain to my advantage. Every time I walked into a room, I thought about how I would clear it and what corner to take first. This was as instinctual as breathing.
I began longing for the days that I went to bed unsure of my place on earth the next day. Waking up every morning knowing that you have to earn your right to live is an awesome and terrifying way to exist. My body was in the US, but my heart and mind were still in Afghanistan. When I would daze off into space, my wife would simply say, “you are back in Afghanistan again.” Over the course of the past few years most of these instinctual actions began to fade, however, I still missed Afghanistan. I continued to check the news ever day and focused on the areas I had spent time in. When I knew my Afghan counterparts, the 5th Commandoes, were in the thick of fighting I felt guilty that I was not by their side. As my friends rotated back to Afghanistan for their 3rd, 4th, 5th sometimes 6th rotation, I felt like I was letting them down because I could no longer deploy with them.
Every day I thought about the Commandoes I trained, the bases I built, my local Afghan work crew, and the hundreds of miles I walked on patrols. When I was really worked up I would tell myself that I would get back there sometime, only to realize that it would likely never happen. I continued to think returning to Afghanistan was a dream until earlier this year when I saw a fellow Green Beret post about Operation Proper Exit (sponsored by the Feherty’s Troops First Foundation). This trip takes wounded soldiers like myself back to Afghanistan so they can leave the country under better circumstances and gain closure.
My mind raced as I looked at his pictures from the trip, I kept thinking, “I need to get on the next trip.” I sent an email to the foundation’s co-founder, Rick Kell and a week later spoke to him on the phone. After a long talk and some vetting through former teammates, Rick said he would love to have me on the next trip. I kept repeating to myself, “this is a once in a lifetime, oh my God, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity.” Once again tears of joy streamed down my face, but this time it was because I was returning to Afghanistan.