A hulking gray C-141 Starlifter jet pulled to a halt on a dark runway at Ramstein Air Base near here this evening, and shortly afterward 10 stretchers bearing bandaged soldiers and Marines were unloaded off the back. Two dark-green ambulance buses carried them to a nearby U.S. Army hospital.
It was the second delivery of the day of wounded service personnel from the Iraqi battlefront, and the military and medical personnel here are preparing for many more. The hospital has doubled its number of beds to 300; the staff has been increased from 1,300 to 1,600. A gymnasium at the Ramstein base has been converted to a makeshift hospital if there's overflow.
"We're prepared to handle 300 casualties a day. Nobody anticipates that possibility, or hopes for it, of course," said Air Force Maj. Mike Young, chief spokesman for the 86th Airlift Wing at Ramstein.
The wounded are brought to Landstuhl, in southwestern Germany, because it's the largest U.S. military medical center outside the United States. They arrive on 10-hour flights from Kuwait, after being evacuated from the battlefront in armored ambulances and helicopters.
Most of the wounded treated so far have suffered gunshot wounds or blast injuries caused by rocket-propelled grenades or land mines. At least two of the 15 who came before this evening's flight had lost parts of a leg. Four arrived on ventilators, but after surgery or other treatment are now able to breathe on their own.
None of the injured has yet spoken to the media, and their identities have not been made public. Three or four are officers, the highest-ranking a lieutenant colonel.
The staff describes them as displaying good spirits overall, though they are still recovering from shock. They are eager to talk by phone with their families, and eat something other than field rations. They also are devoting considerable time to prayer.
Above all, they say they regret being separated from their comrades still in battle.
"Almost all of them have that feeling, 'I want to be with my unit. I want to be with my buddies,' those that they've trained with," said Col. David McLean, a Methodist Army chaplain. He is one of the group that meets the wounded as they arrive, and has spoken to them in the wards.
One of the first questions asked by many of the wounded is whether they will be able to return to the front. After treatment at Landstuhl, typically seven to 10 days, the servicemen usually return to the war or are sent to Walter Reed Army Medical Center or the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda for further care.
Col. David A. Rubinstein, commander of the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, doubts that any of the wounded seen so far will return to Iraq. "The injuries are significant enough that they won't be able to go back to a combat situation," he said.
The flight this evening carried 15 injured servicemen, of whom 10 were on litters and five were able to walk. Three earlier flights, including one at 3 a.m. today, had brought 15 men with combat-related wounds. Of those, 10 were Marines and five were Army soldiers. Four were in intensive care. Three were from the 101st Airborne Division, and apparently were victims of a grenade attack by one of their comrades in Kuwait. Officials here declined to discuss that incident.
Some of the injured don't have a clear image in their minds of the moment when they were hit, while others recall it well, according to Lt. Col. Sally Harvey, an Army psychologist. Some were traveling on a road in a convoy when they were hit, while others were wounded in a firefight while carrying out an offensive action, she said.
Saying her job was partly to offer "a kind word, a friendly voice," she described helping a young man cope with his sadness after losing his leg below the knee to a rocket-propelled grenade. He is an avid golfer, and she assured him that a prosthetic device would allow him to play the game someday with his son, now 2 years old.
"He was so relieved, because he desperately wants to be part of this little boy's life," Harvey said.
McClean said one Marine, with extensive facial injuries from a rocket-propelled grenade, gestured to him to approach upon learning he was a chaplain. The Marine was on a ventilator and unable to speak, but communicated in a note and by pressing McLean's hand that he wished to pray.
"A lot of it is in appreciation that they're still alive, and a lot of it is for their buddies back in Iraq and their families," McLean said.