Operation Proper Exit: A return to the war zone

Wounded American combat veterans return to Iraq to face their traumatic memories of the war, hoping this helps them move forward in their lives.

Operation Proper Exit brings U.S. troops, gravely injured on the battlefield, back to Iraq to confront their haunting memories and, hopefully, get past them. Scott Pelley profiles this unusual program through the eyes of several wounded warriors - still struggling with PTSD, amputations, and other injuries - as they travel back to the place their nightmares were born.


The following script is from "Operation Proper Exit" which aired on Nov. 6, 2011.

The war in Iraq is nearly over for America, but not for the Americans who fought there. The legacy of wounded warriors will be with us for a generation. Recently we heard about a therapy program that takes troops who have recovered from their physical wounds and brings them back to Iraq - back, to confront the memories - back, to work through the feelings of anguish that many soldiers have when they head home and leave their buddies to fight on without them. A total of 68 soldiers and Marines have been on this remarkable journey. We went along with the latest group of eight as they returned to the battlefield for what they call Operation Proper Exit.

For most of them it had been a long time since they'd flown on a military transport or worn the uniform. They'd been wounded years ago and several were civilians now. But for one week, in Operation Proper Exit, they were proper soldiers and Marines again. As the C-130 lumbered over the desert they crowded the windows to look across the battlefields and the memories of the war that had changed their lives.

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An honor guard awaited them in Baghdad - and so did uncertainty. They didn't know how, or whether, this program would help them. First off the plane was Marine Corporal Matt Bradford, returning to the place that has haunted him the last four years.

Matt Bradford: I wake up in the middle of the night and can't go back to sleep, because I keep thinking about, you know, getting blown up, laying there on the ground.

Operation Proper Exit: Matt Bradford goes home
Cpl. Matt Bradford returns home, eager to start a new chapter of his life despite severe injuries.

Bradford was blown up in 2007. He was 20 then, inspired to join the corps by 9/11. The last thing he saw in Iraq, the last thing he ever saw was the wire that turned out to be a roadside bomb. He was blinded and lost both legs. Bradford came back to re-imagine that final vision of Iraq.

Bradford: Still I'll always have that picture in the back of my head, you know, of-- you know, looking down and seeing, you know, the wires going into the pipe that, you know, shrapnel going straight in my eyeballs.

Scott Pelley: Some folks would think that, after what happened to you, you'd never want to get anywhere close to this place again.

Bradford: You know, ever since I've been hurt and stuff, I've had a lot of people tell me I couldn't do something. So I told 'em I would return back to Iraq, you know, someday. I don't let people tell get me down on anything. If they tell me I can't do something, I want to go find a way to do it.

Pelley: No means go.

Bradford: Can't is not in my vocabulary.

[Ed Salau: He trusts only a handful of people with the job of being his eyes.]

Ed Salau came to be Matt Bradford's guide. But he also served in Iraq and paid for it. In 2004, then Army Lieutenant Salau was leading a patrol of armored vehicles. And on the way back to the base they were hit. He and his gunner each had a leg blown off.

Salau: We won that fight. We lost a couple of legs. Life's different. I jokingly say, "I had 10 really good months and one really bad day."

Salau blames himself for leading his patrol into an ambush and, like a lot of soldiers and Marines we've talked to, he feels guilty about leaving his men when he was medevaced out of Iraq.

Henry Schuster is the producer.

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