KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Four years and dozens of surgeries later, the soldiers were flying over the valley again, staring down at the patch of Afghanistan where they were maimed by land mines.
This time, their camouflage uniforms bulged around prosthetic legs and braces. The four men were aboard two clattering U.S. Army helicopters, but they no longer carried M-16s. They weren’t here to fight.
For years, Americans have returned to their old battlefields — from Normandy to Hue — to try to make sense of their wars. But the four men who had served with the Army’s 4th Infantry Division weren’t waiting for the war to end. They and dozens of other veterans have gone back to Iraq and Afghanistan to seek closure, with the encouragement of the U.S. military.
This time, the four men would return home on their own terms.
About 2.6 million service members fought in either Iraq or Afghanistan, and more than 800,000 returned to the United States with physical or psychological wounds. Many of those who were medically evacuated feel like they were shortchanged — forced to leave their units, plucked prematurely from battle.
The guilt nagged at Capt. Matt Anderson, 30, whose foot shattered when he stepped on an improvised explosive device, or IED.
“I was supposed to be with my men, not in a hospital,” he said.
During his rehabilitation, Anderson heard about Operation Proper Exit, a privately funded program that has helped more than 70 wounded veterans return for visits to Iraq and Afghanistan. After months of planning, the former platoon leader and three of his soldiers arrived in Kabul on a recent morning. Two of the men had left the military; two were still serving.
Back home, their families thought they were crazy.
“My wife thinks the trip is going to bring it all back up again,” Sgt. Daniel Harrison said.
“What if it makes you worse?” Sgt. Ryan McIntosh’s wife asked him. “What if it makes you relive it?”
Their itinerary was simple. For five days, the men would crisscross Afghanistan, visiting the place where they fought but also meeting with active-duty troops. They would be seeking an epilogue to their war but would also share their experiences, at the request of the military and Operation Proper Exit.
Early in the trip, the Army helicopters took them over the Arghandab Valley. To an outsider, the landscape might be unremarkable — a desiccated riverbed and a scrubby patch of trees in the middle of a vast desert. But what the soldiers saw was the geography of their war. That’s where the first bomb exploded. That’s the pomegranate field where the Taliban hid. That’s where the medevac helicopter landed.
The men pointed to what was left of their base — a few blast barriers.
“All the memories came rushing back,” said Harrison, 25, shaking his head after the helicopter landed at a nearby U.S. base. “The good and the bad.”
When the men stepped off the helicopters, hundreds of active-duty troops were waiting for them in two receiving lines. The troops applauded as the returnees were driven on golf carts, waving like they would in a small-town parade, to tables covered in American-flag tablecloths. From a podium, the commanding officer bellowed his introduction.
There was an awkward silence. Then it hit Anderson. Even though he was no longer a platoon leader, his soldiers still waited for him to speak first. He stepped to the microphone and identified himself.
“We were based just a few miles up the road from you,” he said.
The rest of his men followed, introducing themselves by name and injury. Sgt. Andrew Miller, left-leg amputee, was now a student at the University of Houston. Sgt. Daniel Harrison, traumatic brain injury, was at Texas A&M. Sgt. Ryan McIntosh, right-leg amputee, was now running for the U.S. Army in Paralympic races.
The crowd erupted in hoo-ahs.
“Any of us could be sitting there tomorrow,” Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Martin told his men, pointing to the wounded returnees.
Throughout their trip, the four men answered rapid-fire questions from troops at town-hall meetings and around tables in dining facilities.
“How long did it take you to walk on the prosthetics?”
“What keeps you motivated?”
“Why did you come back?”
The four men talked about the races they’ve run, their ability to lead perfectly normal lives in spite of the injuries. They spoke of their need for closure. At each stop, soldiers listening to them discreetly brushed away tears.
“We want to show these guys that we’re fine,” Miller said.
The men’s unit had been part of President Obama’s troop surge. They deployed just months after the commander in chief told Americans, “Our security is at stake in Afghanistan.”
But in their sliver of Kandahar, they hardly ever confronted the enemy — only the IEDs planted under the cover of darkness.
For a year, they walked laps around the same dangerous valley three times a day, attempting to engage locals, who stared at them blankly. None of the company’s 120 men was killed, but 53 were wounded, an astronomical proportion.
When he first arrived in the Arghandab Valley in July of 2010, McIntosh was told by another soldier to take a photo of his legs “because when you leave here, you won’t have them any more.”
A few weeks later, he stepped on the IED.
“The mission didn’t make any sense,” said McIntosh, now 25.
At first, the intensity and danger of the deployment brought the men closer. But eventually, half the platoon was recovering from injuries in Texas or Maryland while the other half continued the fight in Kandahar.
“All of a sudden, you’re living with your mom again in a hotel room,” said Miller, now 26.
After the deployment ended, the soldiers exchanged e-mails and texts about their recovery, their plans and their ambition to one day return to Afghanistan. When a member of the platoon committed suicide last year, they decided at the funeral that they needed to do a better job of watching out for one another.
“There are things we’ve been exposed to that no civilian and no civilian doctor will understand,” Anderson said.
By most measures, their recoveries were hugely successful. McIntosh placed fifth in the United States in the 100 meters in the Paralympics. Anderson made the Paralympic rowing team. Miller and Harrison excelled in their studies.
But Afghanistan had fallen off the national radar. Their connection to the war, to that experience that had shaped them as young men, had started to fade. The men wanted to know what had become of the valley, of Kandahar province, of the country where they been sent to fight.
“You want to go so bad,” Anderson said. “But in your heart of hearts you know it’s impossible.”
On their second night back in Afghanistan, McIntosh took his leg off in the dining hall.
He was sitting with about a dozen soldiers and they were asking him questions — how the leg fits, how it’s made.
McIntosh reached down, yanked up his camos and pulled off the 12-inch limb, which was molded to look like a human calf but had a silver hinge at the ankle. The soldiers passed it around, looking curious and bewildered.
“When you put your stump in there, it’s like a vacuum. It sucks out all of the air,” McIntosh explained.
“Damn,” said one of the soldiers, examining the prosthetic.
When dinner ended, McIntosh put his leg back on and signed autographs for everyone at the table.
Even in Kandahar, the four men began to feel like their audience was fighting a different war than the one they had left. Hundreds of bases, including their own, had been closed. They were told about a huge improvement in security in the Arghandab. Although they heard the boom of a distant mortar, the days of American combat missions were over. The Afghan military was now on the front line, they were told.
The four men walked through the hallways of the military hospital where they had been treated, craning their necks. Once it was packed with the war-wounded. Now it was almost empty.
All of a sudden, they found what they’d left behind.
Behind a desk in one corridor, nurses pulled out their old X-rays, showing the soldiers’ pulverized limbs before they were amputated. The men stared, agape, at the images.
“You’re welcome to take a photo of your foot,” a nurse told Anderson, who snapped the X-ray with his iPhone.
McIntosh stared at his own X-ray. “I didn’t realize it was that messed up,” he said.
They found their hospital beds and tried to remember any details from the medicated haze after their injuries. McIntosh lay down on the floor and took a photo of the gray ceiling he’d stared at after his amputation. Anderson found one of the doctors who had taken care of him and shook his hand. For many of the medical personnel, it was the first time they had seen their patients fully recovered.
“You have no idea what this does for us to see you,” said Capt. Mary Neill, the head of the Kandahar hospital, fighting back tears.
When they left Kandahar in 2010, the men were fluent in military jargon. When they returned, after so much time in hospitals and rehabilitation centers, they spoke like biomedical engineers, anatomizing their injuries and discussing the relative merits of new prosthetic materials. Anderson had written a research paper in college on heterotopic ossification. “How your flesh can turn into bone,” he explained.
Back in the States, people often keep their distance from the amputees, “like they’re afraid,” Miller said.
But during Operation Proper Exit, the brotherhood resumed effortlessly. The men poked fun at each other for being tall or bald or charming around women. They downed Rip-It energy drinks, like all the other U.S. soldiers.
“These guys feel like they got knocked out of the ring by the enemy,” said Maj. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, who met the men on a stopover in eastern Afghanistan. “They deserve a chance to get back in that ring.”
When the long days ended, the men took off their prosthetics. They sent e-mails to their wives and girlfriends and parents.
Harrison told his wife that her fears about the trip were wrong. He told her how easy the transition back to military culture had been. It was like the platoon had never been apart.
“The harder transition is going back to the U.S. again,” he said.