Five wounded service members, including two Medal of Honor recipients and last year's Army Times Soldier of the Year, visited Afghanistan Wednesday as part of Operation Proper Exit.
"Today, I had the distinct honor and privilege of welcoming five wounded warrior heroes back to Afghanistan," Gen. John Campbell, the top commander there wrote on his Facebook page. "The entire Resolute Support Headquarters is thankful for their service and are proud to be a small part of their return to Afghanistan to receive their well-deserved proper exit."
The troops who returned to Afghanistan were retired Master Sgt. Leroy Petry, retired Marine Cpl. Kyle Carpenter, Sgt. Tom Block, retired Sgt. Ralph Cacciapaglia and retired Cpl. Steve Martin.
Petry received the Medal of Honor for his actions on May 26, 2008. He is credited with saving the lives of his fellow Rangers when he picked up a grenade and threw it away from them during a fierce fight in Paktya province. Petry was then on his seventh deployment and assigned to 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment. He received the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for valor, on July 12, 2011. He retired last summer.
Carpenter was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in February 2010. Carpenter, was part of the Marine assault in Marjah in southern Afghanistan. He was honored for throwing himself on a grenade to shield a friend and fellow Marine from the blast.
Block was the 2014 Army Times Soldier of the Year. Block, of 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, was wounded Oct. 5, 2013, during a raid in southern Afghanistan. Block and his fellow Rangers were on a mission to root out insurgents who had been planning suicide bombing attacks in the area when a suicide bomber — either woman or a man dressed as a woman — detonated. Block was thrown 35 feet into a minefield, severely wounded. Four other soldiers died on that mission, and nearly two dozen others were wounded.
"This trip for me came to a head when we visited Craig Medical Center," Block said, according to a news release from U.S. military officials in Afghanistan. "They showed me the bed that I stayed in. That kind of came full circle for me."
Martin, of the National Guard, was wounded in September 2008 in Logar province, according to the news release. He now works as a trooper with the Arizona Highway Patrol. Since he lost his legs, Martin has participated in 29 half marathons and five full marathons, according to the news release.
"I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing today without the service members that helped get us through there," he said. "It's just neat to see a sea of green out here today. Going back into Craig [Hospital] this morning was huge. It was a big emotional moment for me because the last time I [arrived] was unfortunately via a Black Hawk ride on a stretcher. I was pretty banged up. They took great care of me. They took great care of my team when we were hit and rolled us out of there about four days later. It's a huge honor to be back here today and to see everybody. I just didn't think I'd get back over here to see it."
Caccipaglia, of 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, was wounded February 2012 in Helmand province. Four months after being shot through the leg by a 7.62mm round, he tried out for and made the 2012 All-Army Rugby Team. He's currently working on his master's degree in business administration at Boston College.
"I am extremely humbled and proud to have had the opportunity to spend time with them and thank them personally for their service and sacrifice," Campbell wrote on his Facebook page. "Their example keeps me motivated to keep serving and ensure their sacrifice was not in vain."
Hundreds of coalition troops deployed to Afghanistan lined the streets at Resolute Support Headquarters in Kabul to greet the five men. The next day, the five men received a similar reception at Bagram Airfield.
In his address to the troops, Carpenter said he was overwhelmed by the reception he received, while Petry thanked the troops for their contributions to the mission in Afghanistan.
Operation Proper Exit, run by the Feherty's Troops First Foundation, gives wounded warriors a chance to return to the theater in which they were wounded. The intent is to give the troops emotional closure and a chance to make a "proper exit" on their own terms instead of being medically evacuated, according to the foundation's website.
Michelle Tan is the editor of Army Times and Air Force Times. She has covered the military for Military Times since 2005, and has embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Haiti, Gabon and the Horn of Africa.