Nearly every night, giant transport jets arrive at Andrews Air Force Base. They are carrying wounded American military personnel from around the world. These days most of them are coming from the Iraqi battlefield. Army Specialist Michael Regehr, a 21-year old military vehicle mechanic, was flown here after his convoy was hit by a blast that sent searing bits of metal into his face and legs.
“We were just driving along and next thing I know I am laying in the back of the truck with blood coming out of my mouth,” says Mr. Regehr. “Three of my teeth were shattered completely. I was out for a couple of minutes. After that it was pretty quick as I was medevaced in a Black Hawk helicopter.”
Analysts say these attacks are carried out by remnants of Saddam Hussein's military along with other forces hostile to the U.S. presence. Many soldiers are injured by rocket-propelled grenades or homemade bombs, like the one that struck Mr. Regehr. The U.S. military calls these homemade bombs 'IEDs', or improvised explosive devices.
Michael Regehr says IEDs are different kinds of explosives that are rigged up to be remotely detonated or by being run over: “They are made to look like litter on the side of the road. They could be in a plastic bag, a box, a Coke can or a water bottle. Anything they can put an explosive into and make it look as natural as possible.”
Mr. Regehr says these bombs dot Iraqi roads. Five more were discovered in the immediate area of his vehicle.
Julius Quinerly is a tall, soft-spoken African-American leading a team of 13 medics. They treat soldiers like Mr. Regehr the moment they arrive at Andrews Air Force Base. They see more than 50 injured soldiers a week. Many have serious blast wounds that cause significant burns and lacerations.
“There are injuries from blasts, gunshots and lots of shrapnel," he says. "Some are from rocket-powered grenades, homemade bombs and land minds. All are explosive ordinances that the Iraqis are using against our soldiers. A lot of them have some pretty extensive injuries, some of them are going to have complications for these injuries that are probably going to be life long. My job is to care for them, to make them feel as comfortable as possible, provide the best medical care that I can.”
Mr. Quinerly says advanced medical technology is saving many lives. High-tech body armor minimizes the penetration of bullets. Portable surgical equipment helps doctors identify an injury and operate on the battlefield, as they have not been able to do before: “It means a significant number of survivors versus fatalities. I was activated back for Desert Storm [1991 Gulf War], I know we weren't seeing nearly the number of people that were coming back that were already treated in field. They were coming back significantly worse. Infections and such were setting in because they went so long without receiving definitive care. It's 100% better.”
Mr. Quinerly says while so many soldiers' lives are being saved, they are often overlooked by the public: “When you hear of one or two soldiers killed in an attack against them. "What you're not hearing about are the other 50 that were wounded. A lot of civilians are under the impression that the war is over. Initially we had a lot of people coming out and donating clothing items and food. These guys appreciate every bit of donations. Just the fact that America is reaching out and welcoming them home means the world to them.”
Susan Brewer is doing just that. She is founder and president of America's Heroes of Freedom, a nonprofit organization that collects clothing and personal items for returning troops. Today she is visiting some of the injured soldiers.
Ms. Brewer is concerned that donations from the American public for these soldiers dropped after President Bush declared an end to major combat operations in May. She says the public does not realize how many wounded troops are returning from the Iraq conflict: “I think it's important we are here because they need a human touch. The soldiers need to know that we are proud of them. We have brought about 900 boxes of new clothing. It's very important. Many will come in a cast that requires a certain kind of clothing. We also bring sweats, shoes and toiletries.”
She says soldiers really appreciate these items because all of their personal belongings were left on the battlefield.
Specialist Michael Regehr is expecting a full recovery from his shrapnel wounds. He thinks he may have a permanent ringing in an ear, but says he will get used to it. With another four years still to serve in the U.S. army, he says he would rather not return to Iraq, but understands that he may: “If it happens and they say we need you out there, then I will go. It's part of the job.”
Another injured soldier, 21-year-old Jennifer Winkle, in fact, wants to return to Iraq: “I told my sergeant that I promise to recover as quickly as I can and get back out there and finish my tour. I know it's a terrible place to work and it's hot, but the people that I work with have become something of a family to me, and I would like to go back out to them.”
Chief medic Julius Quinerly says more Americans should realize these men and women are still in combat in Iraq: “People are just not talking about the fact that these guys are coming home wounded, that there is still fighting going on. There are still soldiers stepping on land mines. People are firing rocket-propelled grenades. People are shooting at them every day. These guys that come back are lucky. There are a lot of folks out there who are not coming back.”
As the low-intensity conflict continues, he says many more wounded soldiers like Mr. Regehr and Ms. Winkle are sure to arrive for care at Andrews Air Force Base.