At Frontline Hospital, Afghan War's Toll Is Deeply Felt

At 10 a.m., after an hour and a half of surgery, Breece joined the little boy in the ICU. Nurses parked his gurney next to an unconscious Afghan special-forces soldier whose body bore dozens of shrapnel wounds. They pulled out the plastic breathing tube that had been snaked down Breece's throat before surgery. The camouflage paint and dirt had been wiped from his face. His chest and arms were bare. A white blanket covered the lower half of his body, and went flat just past his knees.

He slowly awoke from the anesthesia. Even in the haze, he understood what had happened.

"Do you feel up to seeing some of your buddies?" his ICU nurse, Commander Thomas Shu, asked.

Seven soldiers from the Germany-based Second Stryker Cavalry Regiment crowded around his bed.

"You'll be back in Germany drinking beer in no time," Staff Sergeant Jeremy Bennett said. He held Breece's left hand, cut in the explosion and wrapped in thick bandages.

Not allowed to drink water until the anesthesia wore off, Breece sucked on a moistened sponge.

"How's Pops doing?" he asked.

"He's still in surgery," Bennett said. "But they say he's doing good."

"Do you know where you are?" Lieutenant Colonel Michaele McCulley asked him. She meets all of the regiment's injured troops at the hospital and sees them through the first hours of their injuries. With more than 100 soldiers wounded during the deployment, she had been here many times. "They took you to surgery to repair and close up those wounds."

"Do I have knees?" Breece asked.

"You have both knees," McCulley said.

"So I'm good now? I'm living?"

In the trauma bay, the staff cleaned up bloody bandages, replaced supplies, and waited for the war to deliver more wounded. Their next two patients had been shot with a burst of machine-gun fire as they searched a dirt road for bombs in Zhari district, west of Kandahar City. Private Second Class Scotty Hasting was hit in the right shoulder and left hip. Sergeant Jacob Manninen was shot in the left forearm.

In the operating room, surgeons removed Castagna's spleen and stanched the bleeding in his abdomen. Nurses wheeled him into the ICU, a few beds from Breece. He was still under sedation. A machine breathed for him.

"How do you like that?" Breece said. "Last patrol. One week to go home."

His platoon had been dropped off by helicopter at six that morning in a remote stretch of Panjwai district for its last mission, a daylong clearing operation. On the outskirts of a village a half hour later, Breece crossed a break in a wall. "We push through it and that's it. The next thing I know I'm upside down in the air," Breece told the gathered soldiers. "No legs, man."

McCulley stroked his forehead.

A general would visit several hours later to present Purple Heart medals to Breece, Castagna, Manninen, and Hasting. All but Manninen, who would return to duty after his wounds healed, would leave Afghanistan the next day.

Breece marveled again at his bad luck. "One week left," he said. "Pretty wild man. Freakin' wild. I'm just happy to be here."

"Do you want to call your wife now?" McCulley asked.

He nodded slightly, eyes still cloudy with anesthesia. "She needs to know," he said.

"Do you want to talk about what you're going to say?" McCulley asked. "It's a hard call to make. She's going to panic and probably cry."

Breece's friends left his bedside and gathered in the corridor.

McCulley dialed his wife's number and handed him the phone.

A moment passed.

"Hey, baby."

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