The journey home from the frontlines of war
August 2nd, 2010
10:11 AM ET

The journey home from the frontlines of war

CNN's Barbara Starr follows injured soldiers from the war zone in Afghanistan to the U.S. in an exclusive look. Watch Part 1 above and then continue the journey in Part 2: The price the wounded are paying and Part 3: Injured together, coming home together

"Godspeed. How is your pain?"

Capt. Katherine Gardener leans over a wounded soldier to murmur words of comfort.

This quiet 29-year-old Air Force trauma nurse is watching over several young wounded soldiers lying on stretchers in front of her.

But we are not in a hospital. We are on a C-17 cargo aircraft at 40,000 feet in the middle of the night.

We have just taken off from the front lines of the war in Afghanistan with dozens of wounded troops on board, many on stretchers. One young soldier lies unconscious on a ventilator, with a military physician at his side.

This is an air medical evacuation flight, a flying intensive care unit that brings the wounded out of the war zone to safety.

James Dennis was hit twice in the same day by roadside bombs and taken to the hospital at Bagram Air Base. Then he got hit in a mortar attack.

Gardner and her medical colleagues make this run from Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan back to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Ramstein, Germany, each week for initial care. Then, a second flight carries the wounded who are ready to leave Germany to military hospitals in the United States.

CNN was granted exclusive access by the Air Force to join this air evacuation flight and then another flight from Germany to Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington. It would mean 41 hours of continuous travel with no sleep for me and my producer, Brian Vitagliano, who carried a small hand-held camera to capture the images and thoughts of the wounded and the medical teams that care for them.

It is not easy for Gardner and the others who see the impact of mortars, rockets, roadside bombs and gunshot wounds on young bodies. For many of the troops she nurses, there is the initial psychological trauma that comes with being physically injured.

"It's hard to read what they have gone through," she told us. "They're so young - I mean, they are 10 years younger than I am."

But their young age belies their experiences in the battlefield, Gardner said.

"It's just amazing what they've been through and that they are alive and they are making it back home," she said. "I could never have guessed the sacrifices they have gone through."

Spc. Mathew Came, 21, is one of those soldiers. We found him onboard lying on a stretcher, being given morphine for the pain of his abdominal wounds, which were visible. Came, a young medic with the 82nd Airborne Division, was on patrol in eastern Afghanistan, tending to other wounded soldiers, when a bullet hit him in the bladder.

As he was given more pain medication, he calmly told us that when he got hit, his buddies went right to work.

"Right away I just went on to talk them through what we need to do, and it all went pretty smoothly," he said.

During World War II, the wounded were first extensively treated in overseas field hospitals, and it could take up to three months before they arrived home. By the time of the Vietnam War, it was down to about a month.

Today, with the ability to medically stabilize the wounded quickly and get them onto air evacuation flights, a wounded soldier could potentially be back in the United States three days after being hit.

It’s a balancing act. Troops must be stabilized enough to be able to withstand the long flights even if they are on a ventilator. But some are so critically injured, the military will try everything to get them home so their families can say goodbye. Since the war began, four troops have died on the way home on medical evacuation flights.

Just getting home can mean everything to those wounded in combat. Army Spc. James Dennis told us he was just waiting to hug his two small daughters. He showed us a prayer good luck charm he wears around his neck, a gift from his children.

For Dennis, that charm has worked. Just a few weeks before we met him, he was hit twice in the same day by roadside bombs and taken to the hospital at Bagram Air Base. Then he got hit in a mortar attack. Today, he is on the flight back to Germany. During the few minutes before being loaded onto the plane, Dennis told us the care from the medical teams eased his worries.

"These people here are awesome. They did their job," Dennis said. "I respect these guys a lot. I have no worries."

Once we got on the second flight, from Germany back to the United States, there were lots of smiles. For some of the troops, the best part about going home was that they were going home together.

We met three soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky. They had served together for months. Their armored vehicle hit a 300-pound roadside bomb. After they were initially rescued and treated, all three were put on our flight on stretchers so they could be flown back to Fort Campbell together.

"We've been together the whole trip," Army Spc. Aaron Nuckolls told me.

With a badly injured leg and back, lying on his stretcher, he pointed to the back of the plane and said, "I know my two guys are back there."

Back there, we found buddy Pfc. Mike Garcia with two broken vertebrae, a broken knee and a broken ankle. It had been his first tour of duty. His big concern: his buddies.

"That's what makes it personal, because we go over there, we are such a small group to begin with," Garcia explained. "And we see pretty much nobody else for the year we are over there."

Garcia said the ultimate bonding of brothers in arms comes when they get hit.

"I can tell you one thing: I am happy with them. I am grateful for them. They helped me out a lot when it happened," he said.

The third man on the team couldn't talk to us.

Staff Sgt. Benjamin McGuire's jaw was shattered in the attack and was wired shut. But we didn't need him to speak in order for us to understand the heartfelt feelings of this soldier at being evacuated out of the war zone with his buddies.

He simply wrote on a pad, "It means a lot that I was able to stay with my soldiers."

I asked if he really thought it helped. He leaned up in the stretcher to write one more time: "Yes ma'am. Without a doubt. In my mind it made my injuries seem not so bad."

soundoff (312 Responses)
  1. Truman Wine

    I am really thankful to this topic because it really gives great information "-"

    January 18, 2011 at 1:01 pm | Report abuse |
  2. mohiuddin chowdhury

    August 8, 2010 at 2:04 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Ken Turner

    I am very gratful to the staff and crew from Basrah Iraq To Balad to Landstual Germany Andrews and on to the Warrior transition unit in FT Bliss TX.I was injured in a mortor attack in Basrah Iraq and had to have knek surgery in Landstual and the care from every one was amazing including the Fisher house and Angeles for Soldiers.Again thank you
    Sgt Turner

    August 7, 2010 at 8:37 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Ed - 30 year veteran

    The Journey Home was a special, very well done program. Barbara Starr did an exceptional job of reporting as did Maj Gen Robb. Many thanks to CNN for doing it. It should be understood that this effort and capability of taking care of our injured military heroes is not new, it has been going on for years. Unfortunately, during the Bush years, we saw the media only interested in showing the body count and especially the coffins coming off the C-141's and C-17's when they arrived at Andrews AFB. Kudos to CNN for finally getting past the politics of it all. Our operational and medical teams, both Active and Reserve and follow-on state-side care deserve great credit for what they are doing, and CNN has finally stepped up to do it!

    August 7, 2010 at 8:18 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Rick H

    Anyone who supports this war is a fool. What is happening to these brave young people at this point is beyond criminal. I salute all of the members of our military who are willing to lay their lives and bodies on the line to defend our freedom, but the fact is that what is happening in Afghanistan has nothing to do with defending the United States at this point.

    Osama Bin Laden is in hiding across the border with the full support of the Pakistani government, and I curse the politicians who continue to abuse the brave young soldiers of our military this way. Every member of Congress should thrown on to the front lines of this war and be forced to live a year in the shoes of these people. Guaranteed the war would stop fast if that were the case.

    August 7, 2010 at 4:09 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Air Force Flight Nurse

    To all,

    This is what I want you know from our perspective. I am currently in Iraq and have deployed 8 times since 2003. Yes I am away from my family but everytime I step on that plane I treat wounded servicemen and women as if they are my child. I do not have to have a political view on the matter, what I do have to have is the skill and strength to give the best care in the air. What we do is amazing, be gracious and understand this are but people who were injured doing their job.

    August 6, 2010 at 4:02 pm | Report abuse |
  7. The Riddler

    "Military men are dumb, stupid animals used as pawns for foreign policy". – Henry Kissinger Riddle me this, why must politicians twist the truth & rule the free world? Well because of MONEY!!! "When the rich rage WAR it's the poor who die & suffer injuries like these soldiers." God bless our troops & let's get the hell out of this country soon Mr. President Obama. "Rethink Afghanistan" is on & there is 100% truth in it people. PEACE!!

    August 6, 2010 at 3:01 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Thomas c kelley

    Thanks so much for running this outstanding piece. I served two tours in Afghanistan as a ccatt physician. My teams flew 67 combat missions under more stress than I ever imagined could be possible. It was the most rewarding work I have ever done. The stories you write about are hauntingly familiar. I look back on my time as an air force physician with many fond memories. Part of me will always miss the camraderie.

    August 5, 2010 at 11:29 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Iris Wiggins

    Thank you, Barbara Starr and Brian Vitagliano for the special series "The Journey Home." Our son was the pilot or flight commander for your journey and it was so rewarding to see how they and the medical personnel are able through their missions to be such an important part of our military receiving the care which they need and deserve.

    August 5, 2010 at 9:51 am | Report abuse |
  10. SDH

    I thank each and every man and woman that has fought for our country. I am a mother of a ex Iraq war vet. No one knows what our men and women go threw over there unless you have family there. I just hope the others that come back get's better care taken of them by government than my son has.


    August 4, 2010 at 10:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • salerno


      August 5, 2010 at 5:21 am | Report abuse |
  11. Beck

    All of the vets in this country deserve the most honorable attention! Things were not as good for the vets coming home back in the past wars. It has got better now for the vets coming home. We can't look back at the past but we have moved forward in improving the way vets are treated now. You are all our hero's. Come together and be there for the vets now. I have a son who served 2 tours so far. I respect all of the soldiers who fight. For those who don't, well I know a hot place you can go and we don't care! David pack your bag honey!

    August 4, 2010 at 10:12 pm | Report abuse |
  12. John D

    God Bless our soldiers and the medical staff that care for them. Thank you CNN for genuine heartfelt coverage. Welcome Home

    August 4, 2010 at 9:52 pm | Report abuse |
  13. RVNDOC

    As A Corpsman with the 26th Marines RVN 69, I always wanted to know what happened to those Marines I got off the field alive. At that time they just disapearred and I was left to wonder if they made it to live a longer life. Of the 60 plus I got off the field alive I have only heard from 2. I hope that any survivor of that period will respond to this. If you know some Marine from the 26th, please have him post on the 26th Marine web site. I have a some time to respond to anyone. Semper Fi!

    August 4, 2010 at 9:42 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Fouzia Rizvi

    Thank you, thank you , thank you!!!

    August 4, 2010 at 9:35 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Todd

    Thanks to all our men and women carrying heavy loads for the rest of America. Godspeed and get home safe. Thanks also to CNN for showing the cost of our decade-long war.

    August 4, 2010 at 9:14 pm | Report abuse |
  16. Chuck SFC, US Army (ret)

    Your daft. You use a link to the Heritage Foundation as your evidence. The Heritage Foundation is little more than a rich man's club that sit around the good ole boy table discussing how to keep war going. You have zero credability if that is your source.. A right wing war mongerers club.. Where you born under a rock? Most of the so called thinkers of that organization were.

    August 4, 2010 at 8:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dave

      In other words you don't actually have a single shred of evidence against what was posted so you go for an ad hominem, ideological attack on his post. Instead of making insipid political attacks, you might want to try looking at the data. If you can prove it has been distorted or is inaccurate, please do so. Otherwise you look like a fool who doesn't have a leg to stand on.

      August 4, 2010 at 10:17 pm | Report abuse |
  17. me

    Your mom should have swallowed.

    August 4, 2010 at 8:24 pm | Report abuse |
  18. Chuck SFC, US Army (ret)

    My hope is that with all the medical advancements that are being made, that these physical injuries can be repaired to the point that our servicemembers can live as normal a life as is possible. The mental injuries can not be seen or measured. That is what concerns me given todays society and man's willingness to kill at the drop of hat. It's no longer shocking when we see carnage like what happened in Conn. Our nation put these kids in an environment of hostility that can not be understood no matter how much we want to, if not experienced. Some of these kids have seen things that would make a normal nightmare seem a joke. And they have to live with their memories. I do not envy them. I respect the hell out of them though. They do not need a cause to stand together. They do not see democrat or republican beside each other. The see brothers. They die for each other, not the beliefs of our politicians. God Bless Them.

    August 4, 2010 at 8:20 pm | Report abuse |
  19. Victoria Shingleton

    My fiancee just returned from Afghan to Walter Reed with PTSD and IED produced TBI. I want to thank Barbara Starr and her producer for such a fine video honoring out troops and their medical personnel. Thank God for these people. As I have sat here for 3 days watching this holding my soldier's hand, I am indebted to everyone and hope all Americans take the time to see this. Stop your bulling, your political posturing. This isn't about rhetoric; it's about our heroes. If you enjoy freedom today, then thank a vet.

    August 4, 2010 at 7:01 pm | Report abuse |
  20. allen schwartz

    I just saw the televised report on returning wounded. One view of the C5A transport showed a confederate flag mounted on a bulkhead next to the US flag. As many of the returning troops are African-American, this is both troubling and insulting to men and women who have risked their lives for this country. Although I know many people regard the confederate banner as a symbol of historical significance, it is entirely inappropriaate to be exhibited on a US Air Force plane. And no, I am not a person of color, and I reside in Richmond VA., the capital of the confederacy.

    August 4, 2010 at 1:18 pm | Report abuse |
  21. jean glover chesapeake virginia



    August 4, 2010 at 12:53 pm | Report abuse |
  22. jean glover chesapeake virginia



    August 4, 2010 at 12:51 pm | Report abuse |
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