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 (294 Responses)
  1. 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 |
  2. 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 |
  3. 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 http://www.hulu.com & there is 100% truth in it people. PEACE!!

    August 6, 2010 at 3:01 pm | Report abuse |
  4. 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 |
  5. 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 |
  6. 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 |
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