Published: December 2006

War Medicine

Wounded Helicopter

The Heroes, The Healing: Military Medicine from the Front Lines to the Home Front

Frontline medicine is always brutal, but for some U.S. troops injured in Iraq, the real fight begins when they come home.

By Neil Shea
National Geographic Staff
Photograph by James Nachtwey

Part One: Front Lines

The war is on hold. The soldiers of Charlie 2-4 sprawl on battered chairs and couches in dust-lined rooms that stink of sweat and half-eaten meals. They stare at pirated DVDs, thumbing through gun magazines, car magazines, even copies of Glamour. Some wrestle like brothers cooped in a snowbound house, boots clomping past stacked rifles, insults riding over radio static. For 12 hours, nothing has happened. The men, crews of one of the busiest medevac helicopter units in Iraq, have fought only boredom. A feeling gathers that something is coming, that they're due. No one mentions it. That would break taboo.

Outside, a sea of stars spreads above the trailers and shipping containers that compose this base. The lights of Baghdad bloom on the horizon, making the place feel removed, safe, although insurgents have lately been lobbing mortars over the 20-foot (six-meter) walls. Elsewhere, infantry units roll out on patrols or return for midnight meals. Generators hum. Spring-armed doors clap shut as soldiers go to shower away the day's dust.

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