This is an important story. They're burned, or blinded, or sparring with death
Since Sept. 11, 2001, more than 18,000 military personnel have passed through the hospital [Landstuhl Regional Medical Center ] from what staff refer to as "down range": Iraq and Afghanistan. Of those, nearly 16,000 have come from Iraq.
Last month, 23 percent of those were casualties from combat, slightly higher than most months; the rest had either accidental or disease-related complaints.
Thirteen have died at the hospital.
Each day, an average of 30 to 35 patients arrive on flights from Iraq. The most on a single day was 168.
More than 200 personnel have come in with either lost eyes or eye injuries that could result in sight loss or blindness.
About 160 soldiers have had limbs amputated, most of them passing through the hospital on their way home to more surgery.
And it's not just their bodies that come in needing fixing. More than 1,400 physically fit personnel have been admitted with mental health problems.
Then there are the Pentagon's figures that touch on all casualties from the war in Iraq: 1,042 dead; 7,413 injured in action, including 4,026 whose injuries have prevented them from returning to duty. In Afghanistan, there have been 366 injuries and 138 deaths.
One other number tells a slightly different tale, a story of selflessness in the face of suffering: one third. That's about how much money surgeons at Landstuhl make compared to what they could make if they chose to work in the civilian world.
"There is nothing more rewarding than to take care of these guys," said Place, the skin around his eyes reddening with the tears that he failed to hold inside. "Not money, not anything."
Col. Earl Hecker sat outside the room where nurses were applying the white antimicrobial cream to one of the burned soldiers. Twenty-seven-years-old, Hecker remarked, looking at the patient's notes.
Hecker, at 70, is a few generations older than his patient. A surgeon who had retired from the Reserves but recently rejoined, he has forsaken his private practice in Detroit for now to help at Landstuhl, working past his assigned 90-day tour to stay nearly 150 days.
This experience "has changed my whole life," he said, his jovial demeanor fading to introspection. "I'm never going to be the same."
The day before, Hecker had been taking care of an 18-year-old soldier who, thanks to an Iraqi bullet, will forever be quadriplegic.
Hecker sat gazing through the window at the burned soldier and thought of the kid he had sent off to the States the day before. "Terrible, terrible, terrible," he said, staring into the distance. "When you talk to him he cries."
"I just want people to understand - war is bad, life is difficult," he said.
Maybe it was the stress, maybe it's because Hecker has no military career to mess up by speaking out of line, but it just came out: "George Bush is an idiot," he said, quickly saying he regretted the comment. But then he continued, criticizing Bush as a rich kid who hasn't seen enough of the world. "He's very rich, you'd think he'd get some education," Hecker said.