When Sgt. Adam Hartswick returned to Afghanistan, it was to provide a sense of closure to an event from which he was prematurely removed.
He instead found himself pumped up, filled with a sense of motivation and camaraderie shared by those who spend time in combat.
“We went to experience the sense of brotherhood that only those who have been there understand,” Hartswick said in a telephone interview. “The war is winding down. We want to talk to the soldiers and get them wound up again.”
Hartswick, an Army medic, lost both his legs to an improvised explosive device more than a year ago on deployment in Afghanistan. After 18 surgeries and a stay at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, he can now get around on a pair of prosthetic legs.
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These legs allowed him to walk in front of a group of fellow soldiers who are giving their time in Afghanistan.
“It’s them seeing us walking or being independent and alive and happy,” he said. “Seeing us gave them hope and a stronger will to fight.
“That was very important for me. It motivates me as well.”
Hartswick, of Pine Grove Mills, returned to Afghanistan as part of Operation Proper Exit, an arm of the Troops First Foundation that gives wounded warriors who were medically evacuated from the battle zone a chance to reconnect with their deployment.
They can see the progress made by the soldiers in theater, and most importantly, it allows them to leave their area of operations on their own terms, according to the foundation’s website.
Hartswick returned to the U.S. on Monday after a week in Afghanistan. He said he “jumped around a lot” after the 12-hour flight from Dulles International Airport to Kuwait, then Afghanistan. After landing, he traveled to areas such as Bagram Air Field, Camp Leatherneck and Forward Operating Base Pasab.
It was on his way to Pasab that he flew over the same spot where he was injured.
“I knew I would be able to see where I was when we were flying,” he said. “I didn’t really feel excited or nervous; maybe a solace sort of feeling, a sense of inner peace.
“I was looking down on the village, and it was good knowing my unit went in and ... punished them for what they did. They hurt innocent people before us.
“That’s just war,” he said.
After landing in Pasab, Hartswick spoke to fellow soldiers during a question-and-answer session in the chow hall.
“I told the guys not to get complacent,” he said. “I was in their position 15 months ago.”
He said he was glad he was able to stand for them using his new legs, which he showed to the soldiers.
“I told them they couldn’t beat me,” he said. “The Taliban couldn’t beat anyone. They got all pumped up, started acting like motivated soldiers.”
Hartswick said it felt good to talk to his fellow soldiers. He encouraged them to continue to practice their lifesaving techniques, to “practice tourniquets till they get bored,” he said.
“When it comes to crunch time to save a life, I was able to save my own,” he said. “I was able to talk someone else through what to do.”
When he was hit by the IED, he instructed a lieutenant on how to put tourniquets on his injured limbs, saving his life.
Hartswick said he enthusiastically agreed to be part of Proper Exit when he was approached at the medical training center in April. He’s glad he went when he did, as this was the last trip the foundation could guarantee before the troop withdrawal begins.
“It’s important for us to feel the brotherhood. It’s important for (our fellow soldiers) to see what happens after you get injured. It’s kind of a gray area,” Hartswick said. “Every warrior has accepted the idea of dying. Few soldiers think about getting wounded. I was ready to die for my country and my brothers. I never thought I’d lose my legs for my brothers.”
He said it gave the soldiers hope and motivation to see wounded warriors walking and being independent. It motivates him as well.
“I do have closure,” he said. “I can start a new chapter.”
This new chapter includes continuing to learn to walk with his new legs — Ottobock X3s, which are described by the manufacturer as “the world’s most technologically advanced prosthetic leg.”
They’re waterproof, with extended battery life and a microprocessor in the knee.
The speed at which he learns to walk is on him, he said, but, “I’m a fast learner. I give 110 percent and work till exhaustion during physical therapy.
“My orders were to heal, and that’s what I’m doing.”
He’s still making plans for what he’ll do once his rehabilitation is over. He said he might go to college to work on prosthetics or get “a fun degree, something I can enjoy.”
He also has the option of staying in the military.
“It’s up in the air,” he said. “I don’t have to decide right now. I’m taking my time. I want to secure my next part in the Army before I decide.”
However, having experienced some freedom as a civilian, he said, it is tempting to get out.
Part of this civilian life includes taking part in the Wounded Warriors’ Soldier Ride bicycle ride. The four-day event started Thursday in New York City and covers 60 miles. It is described as a “cycling opportunity for wounded service members and veterans to use cycling and the bonds of service to overcome physical, mental or emotional wounds.”
“I’m not sure where all we’re going,” Hartswick said, “but I’m looking forward to it.”