WASHINGTON—You don't hear much about them or see their faces very often, but you should. Planes land at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington every night bringing these American soldiers home from Iraq the hard way.
Ambulances ferry them to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where doctors and nurses stand ready to rush them into the operating rooms.
Maj. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley, the commander of Walter Reed and a medical doctor, said that since the beginning of July, two months after the official end of major combat operations, there had been only two days when his hospital hadn't received soldier casualties.
More than 1,000 injured American soldiers have flowed through Walter Reed since the war in Iraq began, and another 300 have arrived from the continuing conflict in Afghanistan since it began in October 2001.
"We are in this for the long haul," Kiley said. "This is going to continue for a long, long time."
They come with terrible shrapnel wounds, missing limbs and often with blood infections. But out of the 1,300 who have passed through Walter Reed, only one has died.
"Each day, eight to 10 patients are leaving to go home or to facilities nearer their homes, even as new casualties are arriving," Kiley said.
Walter Reed's staff of 3,800 includes 600 doctors, 300 Army registered nurses, 1,400 civilian employees, 700 contract employees including nurses and 700 enlisted personnel. There are 256 beds—that number can rise to 700 beds in a mass-casualty situation—and a large outpatient-care network. Walter Reed also trains doctors, nurses and specialists.
The patients in Ward 57, the orthopedic ward, tug at everyone's hearts. President Bush has visited there twice. So have Hulk Hogan and the Redskins cheerleaders. The country band Alabama is expected next week.
On this ward are soldiers with lost limbs.
Spc. Robert Acosta, 20, of Santa Ana, Calif., was assigned to Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion 501st Regiment, 1st Armored Division, at Baghdad International Airport. Acosta and a buddy drove off base in a Humvee on July 13 to buy a few cans of soda from peddlers on the street.
"A hand grenade came through the window and landed on the radio between me and my buddy who was driving," Acosta said. "I could see the spoon (the handle) was gone and a little smoke was coming out the top. Just as I grabbed for it, my buddy hit the gas and rammed the truck in front of us, trying to get out of that area. The grenade fell between my legs on the floor. I grabbed for it again and had it maybe 6 inches off the floor when it exploded."
The blast took off Acosta's right arm. It smashed his left ankle and foot. "I told my buddy, `I'm going to die; tell my Mom and Dad I love them.' He hollered: `Shut up! You ain't dying. Tell them yourself!' I was more scared than hurt."
He added: "All I want to do is be able to run again." Acosta said he would leave the Army because he was afraid he'd end up behind a desk, "and I couldn't stand that. I would rather be out there with my buddies."
Acosta said he heard that intelligence sources reported that it was a 13-year-old Iraqi boy who tossed the grenade into that Humvee and changed the course of his life.
Sgt. Jason Bill, 30, of Douglasville, Ga., had a grin on his face. He was leaving in a wheelchair headed home. He was with Company H, 121st Long-Range Surveillance Battalion of the Georgia National Guard. He was called to active duty Feb. 7. He has 12 years service in both the active Army and the Guard, and "if they'll let me I plan to stay in."
Bill and two other men were riding in a Humvee a month ago in Baghdad. The vehicle crashed or rolled—Bill doesn't know or remember. Both his lower legs were crushed and his lower left arm was broken and his left elbow was dislocated. One soldier was killed and another was hospitalized with Bill in that accident.
He's heading home, but one leg is in an intricate contraption of metal rods, which is a substitute for a plaster cast for 16 weeks while the shattered bones heal.
Sgt. Robert Armstrong, 38, of Fort Hood, Texas, was assigned to Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 67th Armor of the 4th Division. He was guarding the children's hospital in Baghdad with his buddies July 26. There had been rumors that a rocket-propelled grenade attack was about to happen. "We pulled our vehicles back closer to the hospital building, behind a wall," Armstrong said.
The danger was not from the outside, but inside the hospital. "Someone dropped a hand grenade off a balcony of the hospital and it blew me up," Armstrong said. He lost his right leg and his left eye.
His wife, Esther, said she was told that he nearly died twice. They have two children, Scott, 17, who already has signed up for a program for high school seniors to enlist in the Marines, and Mary, 15.
"Scott's going to be a Marine and guard the president. Mary is going to be a war protester and go to Berkeley," Armstrong said with a grin. "I wrote Scott letters about the military situation; I wrote Mary letters about me. We had a deal."
Sgt. Matthew Dewitt, 26, of Hillsboro, N.H., sat on the edge of his hospital bed, exhausted by a session of tough physical therapy. He looked a little dazed and disbelieving, as well he might: A rocket-propelled grenade explosion July 22 ripped off both his hands as he sat in the gun position atop a Humvee. "I don't know what I'll do," he said. "I don't know what's there for me to do now."
Sgt. Michael Cain, 22, of Berlin, Wis., was with Delta Company 4th Fire Support Battalion, 4th Division. His vehicle hit a mine Aug. 10, and he lost his right leg just below the knee and sustained a broken arm and broken ankle.
He had been at Walter Reed for five days. He was in the operating room for seven hours of surgery the day before he was interviewed. He would go back the next day for two or three more hours.
"I'm going to be all right, sir," Cain said from his hospital bed. As a visitor said goodbye, Cain beckoned him to his bedside and pulled him down for a tight cheek-to-cheek hug. He whispered, "I'm going to be OK."
An afternoon spent on Ward 57, Walter Reed hospital, is a stark reminder of the true cost of war, and who pays the price.