The base, dubbed Mortaritaville, is attached to LSA Anaconda, the U.S. Army's largest support base in Iraq. The combined, enclosed outpost, spread over an area with a 12-mile circumference, is fortified against bombardment by hundreds of asymmetrical rows of concrete blast walls, 12 to 20 feet high and 2 feet thick. They snake through the camp abutted by huge, mantrap-sized, cardboard-lined metal baskets filled with dirt, called Hesco Barriers. Roughly 20,000 soldiers and 2,800 airmen, as well as a smattering of civilian contractors and Department of Defense operators, are garrisoned there. (Members of the U.S. Air Force, man or woman, pilot or mechanic, are officially known as airmen.) They bunk in thin-skinned metal "hootches," similar to the containers that transport merchandise on ships. Each is large enough for two bed frames and two aluminum wardrobes; a few are double stacked. Though surrounded by sandbags piled 5 feet high, they offer little safety from a direct hit by a rocket or mortar, which are lobbed over the wire nightly. "Raining iron," the soldiers call it, and smile.
The neighboring Iraqi town of Balad is the heart of the remaining Saddam loyalists in Iraq. Thus, the base has a Fort Apache feel to it. Its ready-alert status requires every soldier and airman to carry or wear the bulky 4-pound Kevlar helmet and 35-pound armor-plated vest ("battle rattle") at all times, be it to the chow hall, the makeshift gym, the basketball courts, or the latrine in the middle of the night.
The 54th Medical Company's flight crews are constantly in the air, averaging 25 dust-offs and medical-supply runs a day. They take pride in the fact that they are the only medevac choppers in theater to fly without escorts. A half dozen of the 54th's Black Hawks are stationed at Balad -- another half dozen are spread about the theater at smaller forward operating bases -- and can cover a 50-mile radius ("60 to 70 in a pinch," says one pilot). They do not lack for business.
The aircraft, configured to carry up to six litters, have been modified into flying emergency rooms, set up for any medical contingency one might encounter in a bloody war. Their holds are crammed with oxygen tanks, blood packs, heart-rate monitors, chest and intubation tubes, pressure infusers, splints, defibrillation paddles, drugs of every stripe. It is not unusual for medics to pick up a wounded soldier at the point of impact and begin measuring his heart rate with a portable electrocardiogram machine or sedating him with a Valium infusion as the helicopter races to the field hospital.
But the bulk of a medic's work is done on the ground. It is too often sad and bloody and dangerous, all at the same time. One morning, soon after my arrival in theater, a med-evac call came in after another Humvee attack in a nearby village, this vehicle blown onto its side by an IED, military shorthand for the ubiquitous improvised explosive devices that, along with suicide car bombs, have become the weapon of choice for the Iraqi insurgency. Two GIs were seriously wounded -- one thrown clear by the blast and unconscious, the other, a turret gunner, pinned beneath the vehicle, his legs crushed.