(This is the cabin of our C-130 on our trip from Kuwait to Afghanistan. The members of Operation Proper Exit are spread throughout the cabin.)
With a flight time of over five hours from Kuwait to Afghanistan and a C-130 reserved just for the members of Operation Proper Exit (OPE), each of us spread out throughout the cabin as soon as the plane took off. On my flights to Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011, I knew everyone would not be making the return trip home after the deployment. During the flights, I would inquisitively stare at the men and wonder who would make the ultimate sacrifice. Six years later with OPE, I scanned the faces in the cabin mid-flight and the sense of dread I used to feel was replaced with inspiration.
I saw five other men who had suffered devastating injuries and underwent an excruciating physical, mental and emotional healing process. I noticed the prosthetic arm and legs along with a set of crutches propped up against the cabin walls. After all these men had been through, they still possessed the courage to go back to the land that took so much from them. While my mind processed these images and emotions I thought to myself, “this is what resilience looks like”.
Our plane landed under the cover of darkness at Bagram Airfield (BAF), something I had done numerous times before. However, this time I was greeted by an entourage of high ranking officers and senior enlisted soldiers. Unlike my other trips to BAF, a two-star general carried my bag off the plane. After moving off the airstrip, we received a hero’s welcome. At least 1,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and civilians lined the street clapping wildly for us as a band played military songs. My emotions ran high and for the first of many times, I fought back tears as I waved to the crowd.
When we made it to the end of the street, the crowd collapsed in on us and the commanding general said a few words. After his remarks each person came and shook our hands, many of which had tears in their eyes. We were told of how inspiring we were and how proud they were of us. Once again I was reminded that this trip was not about me.