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Assignment Afghanistan: Treating the war wounded, and getting them home fast

(Landstuhl, Germany) Tuesday night in his State of the Union address, President Obama said the U.S. war in Afghanistan will be over by the end of 2014.

But that’s still a long way away for soldiers still fighting – and being injured – in the battlefield.  And soldiers are still being injured by the hundreds.

When a soldier is hurt, they’re airlifted out of Afghanistan, and usually taken to Europe.

They arrive by the busload at an American hospital on foreign soil, Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.  More than 60,000 patients have been treated at Landstuhl since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began.

Including, on the day of our visit, Nathan Shurter, an Army Sergeant who just days earlier in Afghanistan had a brush with death when his Army buddy stepped on an IED (improvised explosive device) next to him.

“Got him, got me, and got my saw gunner right behind me,” Shurter told FOX 31 Denver.

The homemade bomb turned the terrain into shrapnel, hurling pebbles, dirt and sticks at Shurter, embedding them in his skin.

“Some of the bigger holes (in my skin) are (from) rocks. Doesn’t sound like much, but it works,” Shurter joked.

The wounds stretch from his torn-up leg to his ruptured ear drum.  And here to help make the pain go away is a nurse we met from Denver.

Taylor Ludwig went to Denver West High School. He used to work at St. Anthony Hospital.  But a while back, he decided he wanted to treat American heroes, so he picked up and moved to Germany.

“It’s really a wonderful opportunity, a very humbling opportunity to work with this patient population. Every day I feel honored just to be included in this group,” Ludwig said.

For Taylor and the other medics at Landstuhl, the goal is to tend to soldiers like Nathan, and get them back home to their loved ones in the U.S. as fast as possible – usually just two or three days after they’re injured in the battlefield.

Compare that to Vietnam, when it often took a month and a half to get them back home.  For Taylor, it’s the least he can do, for men and women who do so much for their country.

And while 99 percent of the injured service members who show up at Landstuhl do make it back home, occasionally the heartbreaking happens here.

On the very day we visit Landstuhl, so does the family of Army Staff Sergeant Nicholas Reid, 26.

They’ve hurried here from the U.S. to say goodbye to their son and brother.  A bomb disposal expert, he suffered massive wounds just days earlier when one of those bombs went off.

He was injured in the Kandahar province, one of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan.

He held on for four days, but his wounds were just too severe. There was no way he could have survived. The young soldier was flown to Landstuhl and honored in an emotional Purple Heart ceremony in the hospital.

“The ones that stick with you are the people who did not survive. Because you get the most emotionally invested in those,” said Lisa Boatright, an ICU nurse at Landstuhl.

Her job is a world away from her early days as a nursing student at the University of Colorado, and her old job at Swedish Medical Center in Englewood.

There’s something different when your patients are heroes, she says, and you’re the one who has to deliver the heartbreaking news.

“For me that’s the hardest part of the job, is talking to that emotional wife, or parents, or someone on the other end of the phone,” Boatright said.

Around here, soldiers like Nicholas Reid leave their mark. And leave behind a monumental task for medics:  forcing them to mourn those few soldiers who don’t get to go home, while still focusing on the many that do.

Coming up tomorrow night: We’re going back to Afghanistan, with the men and women of the 34th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron based out of Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs.  They have a very stressful job, loading and treating patients in a make-shift emergency room inside the belly of a C-130 cargo plane.  So how do they relieve the stress?  What do they do on their day off?  They’re letting us tag along.  And we’ll introduce you to a young Afghan merchant who looks like a cast member of the “Jersey Shore.”  How he’s embraced the American troops, and is sad to see them go.  That’s Wednesday night at 9 in our on-going special series, “Home From War: Assignment Afghanistan.”