War may be the best teacher of war, as Clausewitz observed, but, from Gettysburg to Khe Sanh to Samarra, it has also been an unparalleled teacher of medicine. The rescuers in this story are aided by great leaps in modern technology, the conflict in Iraq having been the proving ground for a number of medical innovations: robotic prostheses for amputees, pills that read soldiers' vital signs, computer chips that pinpoint wounds, vacuum-sealed sterile pressure bandages, operating-room laser technology, and even a new form of antibacterial gauze with a veneer of Vaseline. All are very likely to be put to use in civilian emergency rooms across America someday.
But the primary components of this pipeline are the wisdom and heart, the dignity and valor, the expertise and dedication, of its practitioners. In many ways, this is a horrific story, as all narratives of violence visited upon youth need be. War, for all its lies, is about the truth, and no matter your view regarding the necessity or prudence of the invasion of Iraq, the fact remains that in a distant desert land, our country's soldiers are being torn to pieces at conveyer-belt rates. They would not make it home alive without this pipeline, which starts in the "golden hour," that first 60 minutes after a soldier is wounded in action, when life and death literally hang in the balance.
It starts with the medics in Balad.
In military circles, the phrase "tip of the spear" is much overused, yet it describes perfectly the medics who have rescued most of -- as of this writing -- the more than 16,000 U.S. servicemen and women wounded in Iraq. During the Vietnam War, it took weeks to move a wounded man from the bush to a hospital in the United States. Today, a soldier seriously wounded in Fallujah can be whisked to the Iraqi theater hospital, transferred to the American-staffed Landstuhl Medical Center in southwestern Germany, and taken to National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, or Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., within 36 hours.
The medics at the mouth of this pipeline hail from the 54th Medical Company, out of Fort Lewis, Washington, and they're stationed at Balad Air Base, 42 miles northwest of Baghdad. This is the nexus of America's medical presence in Iraq. Located in the parched province of Salah ad Din, it's a former Iraqi Air Force base. It was captured by U.S. forces in 2003 and -- with its two parallel, 11,000-foot runways -- has become America's air hub in the region. The site is dusty and gritty and rocky and hot. Only a few scraggly eucalyptus trees, their leaves caked brown with sand, disrupt the endless horizon.