The bus comes to a halt in front of Landstuhl hospital and the engine is turned off.
In the dim light, Soldiers on litters line both sides, double-decker. None is in serious condition, but none speaks in the uneasy silence.
The back doors swing open. Cold, light, and noise flood in.
Below and out of sight, dozens of staff move to the back of the bus. Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force. Digital and woodland cammo, PT uniforms and hospital scrubs. All wear blue surgical gloves.
“Ok, we’ve got Smith”, announces the Air Force Sergeant inside. He turns back, and with the help of his colleagues Smith’s litter is removed from the metal rack fastenings which drop against the inner wall of the bus with a clang.
Smith is carried to the door where eight pairs of hands reach up to receive him.
“Lower [the litter]! Lower!”
Smith is lowered out of sight.
The remaining Soldiers lay silent on their litters.
It won’t be long now. One by one, they’ll be taken from the bus.
“This’ll be Miller.”
Another litter is removed from the rack. The fastenings clang. The litter is carried to the doors, passed to the waiting hands below.
It won’t be long now. Until they’ll all be taken from the bus.
Taken one step further away from their brothers back downrange, away from the only life they’ve known for many months, away from the work they were called to do.
“Jones. We’ve got Jones next.”
The hands lower Jones out of sight and into the Unknown.