Wounded US vets return to Afghanistan to confront demons

Wounded US vets return to Afghanistan to confront demons
Washington is winding down its 32,000 troop deployment in Afghanistan after nearly 13 years of war, with President Barack Obama announcing this week that all US forces will leave by the end of 2016.

AFGHANISTAN - Seven years ago, Jose Navarro's platoon was ambushed and nearly overrun by Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.

The troops found themselves pinned down, desperately calling for air strikes. Bullets ripped through Navarro's stomach, and medics at one point thought he was dead.

But this week, after dozens of surgeries, Navarro returned to Afghanistan in an army uniform, flying in a military helicopter with another soldier wounded in the same attack.

"I wanted to walk out of here on my two feet. Last time I was here I got shot in my stomach and got an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) through my leg," he told AFP.

Washington is winding down its 32,000 troop deployment in Afghanistan after nearly 13 years of war, with President Barack Obama announcing this week that all US forces will leave by the end of 2016.

While an end is now in sight for America's longest war, many of the more than 19,000 Americans wounded in Afghanistan will be coping with injuries for years to come.

And, at home, the wounded vets are now facing another fight, struggling to secure medical treatment in the face of incessant bureaucratic delays blamed on the Obama administration's Veterans Affairs department.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned on Friday, paying the price for an expanding scandal over failures in health care for America's retired warriors.

The president said that an initial review by Shinseki, 71, had found that delays and other management failures in veterans' health care were systemic and nationwide.

Although elderly veterans often revisit battlefields decades after they fought, Navarro and some other former soldiers are returning to a country still at war, to try to conquer painful memories.

The return trip was organised by the Troops First charity under its "Operation Proper Exit" programme, which is designed to give wounded US soldiers a chance to write a new epilogue to their tour of duty.

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