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Anything but temporary

We're at a U.S. Air Force base in Balad, Iraq, 50 miles north of Baghdad and a world away. The 332d Air Expeditionary Wing has assembled here an enormous force of people and machines that looks to me anything but temporary. 

One of the unit's many missions is the transport of injured U.S. troops "out of theater" to Germany and then on to hospitals at home. Tonight alone, the five beds in the emergency room and the two operating rooms have turned over again and again as waves of wounded U.S. troops and Iraqis arrive by helicopter or airplane. I'll have lots more to say about the amazing care here online and on Nightly News soon, but back to Balad.

This was Saddam Hussein's air base and the American military first bombed it in 2003, then took it over and have been rebuilding and expanding it ever since. The commanders here like to brag that, including helicopter flights, this is now the second-busiest airport in the world after London's Heathrow. F-16s slam off the runway in shifts day and night with their afterburners blazing for surveillance missions -- and often to scramble to bomb a target. Giant transport planes bring in cargo that is then distributed in smaller planes to "forward operating bases" throughout the country. This avoids increasingly dangerous road travel whenever possible. A massive fleet of Black Hawk, Chinook and other helicopters ferries troops and material throughout the country.

The place looks like any Air Force Base in the U.S. or around the world with its PX, Difacs (dining facilities) and base housing in trailers. You just can't go out the gate. The vast majority of the service people here will see nothing else of Iraq, and what they see here is a lot of dust that now turns to mud with the occasional winter rain. Concrete blast walls surround every building closely. Everyone jokes that they wish they had the contract for the concrete. (Kellogg, Brown and Root is building and maintaining the place.) Mortar rounds still hit the facility almost daily, but cause little damage.

And I'll close with some good news: We just made contact with doctors at the Army hospital in Baghdad. The 6-year-old Iraqi girl I described here on Friday is doing great. A second surgery is giving hope that she will keep the use of her arm. Her parents found her and I'll have lots more to say about her story in the days to come.