Ryan McIntosh hasn’t let the loss of the lower half of his right leg slow him down.
After the U.S. Army sergeant from Rifle recently returned to where he stepped on a land mine in 2010, early into his first deployment in southern Afghanistan, he believes he’s had closure.
“It was awesome,” McIntosh, 25, said of a weeklong visit to Afghanistan in March. “To see what my sacrifice gave to the people in Afghanistan, it made me realize it wasn’t for nothing.”
Now, the Rifle High School track and football athlete who graduated in 2007 hopes to qualify for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro as a sprinter.
Part of that path forward was the trip back to Afghanistan. McIntosh, along with five other wounded soldiers, went back as part of an Operation Proper Exit visit.
Operation Proper Exit was founded in 2009 as an offshoot of another nonprofit veterans program, Troops First Foundation. It was founded in August 2008 by two college basketball coaches, Rick Kell and David Feherty.
Operation Proper Exit is for wounded U.S. soldiers making gains in their recovery. They are individually selected and invited to return to the battlefield with fellow wounded soldiers to get a sense of closure to their mission, according to the program’s Facebook page.
“I was kind of indifferent about it before we went over,” McIntosh said. “I thought I might just worry about what happened and feel sorry for myself. But I feel I really finished that part of my journey.”
More than three years after his injury, McIntosh returned to the same hospital where his lower right leg was amputated and told his story to a crowd of service members, nurses and doctors. Later, he lay upon the hospital floor where he once fought a nurse for his wedding ring and took a cell phone photo of the ceiling.
“I got hurt, and I wasn’t going to let my injury define me; I was going to define myself,” McIntosh was quoted as saying in a U.S. Army news release as he addressed soldiers at Kandahar Airfield’s Liberty House.
Back stateside, McIntosh planned to spend a week this month in U.S. Army track training at the Ft. Carson Army base in Colorado Springs.
After high school, he received a scholarship offer to run track and play football at Graceland College in Lamoni, Iowa, but instead enrolled at Mesa State (now Colorado Mesa University) in Grand Junction.
There, he met his wife, Hannah, enlisted in the Army and was deployed to Afghanistan on Oct. 8, 2010. He was wounded exactly two months later.
Four of the soldiers on the Proper Exit visit — McIntosh, retired Sgt. Daniel Harrison, retired Spc. Andrew Miller and their platoon leader at the time, Capt. Matt Anderson, served with the 4th Infantry Division at Combat Outpost Ware in Kandahar Province when they were injured. The fifth, retired Sgt. Noah Galloway, was deployed with the 101st Airborne Division when he was injured in Iraq in 2005. All made the trip to Afghanistan and talked to service members throughout the visit about their personal stories.
“We had all bonded before, but this trip really brought us full circle,” McIntosh said. “It’s a phenomenal program that brings closure. I appreciate the chance to go back over there.”
Seeing the exact location where he was injured wasn’t as emotional for McIntosh as one might think.
“I was just excited to be there,” he said.
And this Memorial Day will be about the same for McIntosh as any other, before or after his injury.
“I’ll be thinking about all the soldiers, the ones who made it home, the ones who didn’t and the ones still in Afghanistan,” he said. “I still think a lot about those days over there.”