Editor's note: Pentagon Correspondent Jim Miklaszewski recently returned from an embedded reporting trip to Iraq.
The NBC crew and I were already on our way to the Air Force battlefield hospital at the Balad Air Base when in the distance we saw the Blackhawk medevac helicopter coming in for a landing. What we didn't know was that it carried ABC anchor Bob Woodruff and cameraman Doug Vogt. Both had been seriously wounded by an IED -- improvised explosive device -- military jargon for one of those increasingly sophisticated and deadly roadside bombs. Vogt's reportedly recovering nicely. A week later, Woodruff remains in a medically-induced coma at the National Naval Medical Center outside Washington, his long-term prognosis still uncertain. What is clear is they both owe their lives to the men and women at Balad.
The Air Force hospital is a sprawling complex of medical tents. In Iraq, unfortunately, it gets plenty of business. All day and night, the most seriously wounded soldiers and Marines arrive at Balad -- 1,100 per month -- many suffering critical head injuries from those IEDs. What happens here is nothing short of remarkable. Some of the most complicated, and in many cases risky medical procedures, are performed as a matter of routine, often under mortar fire, in the middle of a war zone.
Of the 30 military physicians on staff, two are neurosurgeons. In fact, brain surgery is conducted almost daily. It's the only battlefield hospital ever to be equipped with not one, but two CT-scanners, to quickly locate elusive chunks of potentially deadly shrapnel lodged inside the brain and body, saving precious seconds between the time the injured first arrive and they're whisked into surgery. But it's the medical staff, both Air Force and Army, who account for the 96 percent survival rate at Balad.
Col. Jill Sterling, a Medical Squad Commander from the Air Force Wilford Hall Medical Center in San Antonio, told us that she felt honored to be treating the U.S. servicemen and women, badly broken by the war, and that her current tour at Balad has been the epitome of her medical career. "We're really making a difference," she said. "We're saving lives." Soon, the sound of approaching Blackhawk helicopters carrying more wounded Americans rose up outside the tents. When I turned to Col. Sterling she was already gone. There were more lives to be saved.