LANDSTUHL, Germany -- One by one, the American soldiers wrapped their hands around the gurney and passed their fallen comrades down the line, transferring them from the dark, cavernous ambulatory bus to a cushy soft stretcher and some of the best medical care in the world.
Some 24-36 hours earlier the group of 18, from all arms of the U.S. military, was spread across the globe. Some were in Iraq, others in Afghanistan and others in Kosovo. But something went wrong -- as simple as chest pain, as complex as a car bomb. Now, after an eight-hour flight from Balad, Iraq and a 10-minute bus ride from nearby Ramstein Air Base, the group finds itself in southwestern Germany, at the largest American military hospital outside the U.S.
Fifteen minutes down the Autobahn is Kaiserslautern's Fritz-Walter Stadium, where the United States men's national team will face Italy in its second World Cup match on Saturday. There are few things the 50,000 Americans who live and work in the area have been more excited about.
"These guys are the heroes for our heroes," said Col. Randy Modlin, chief of medicine at Landstuhl. "We can't wait. It's all we've been talking about at the water cooler for quite a while now."
But at this exact moment, as patients continue to get unloaded from the bus, the game couldn't be further from anyone's mind. A bus like this pulls up here everyday, its contents often gruesome. Missing limbs, faces burned beyond recognition, massive holes from bomb blasts. This is the norm.
"If you're here, more often than not you're seriously ill," says Jack Sweeney, director of the Deployed Warrior Medicated Management Center. "You're probably in trouble. And when you work here and see that day in and day out, it wears on you."
Landstuhl is the only American tertiary hospital in Europe, providing care for more than 34,000 patients since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in October of 2001. It is the definitive stop for anyone serving in Iraq and also services the 300,000 American military personnel stationed in Europe.
The hospital has more than 2,000 employees and, on any given day, serves roughly 100 inpatients and several more outpatients. The goal here is a simple one: to stabilize patients so they can fly to the States for further care (the average stay is 2-4 days) or, if they have the potential to return to battle, get them fit enough to do that as soon as possible.
It's an emotionally draining, physically exhausting place to work.
"My boss will call me and say, 'Jack, turn on the TV,'" Sweeney said. "And I'll know exactly what he's talking about. Something's happened over there and they're headed our way."
Which is what makes Saturday's match all the more important. Thursday's arrival of the U.S. team was front-page news in Stars and Stripes, the official military newspaper. Not far from Fritz-Walter Stadium, U.S. military officials are planning a viewing of the game at Pulaski Barracks, where an all-girl AC/DC tribute band will perform. In a town of 100,000, with a sister city of Davenport, Iowa, city officials are estimating more than 200,000 fans will gather downtown to watch Saturday's match. Several will be American military personnel.
"When you're exposed to tragedies like this, when you're a surgeon and you have to cut off a kid's legs or his arms or a face is so burned that it's completely unrecognizable or you're sticking your hands in these massive wounds, it gets to you," Sweeney said. "You have nightmares about your patients.
"And this game is a way for everybody to get away from that for a little bit. I'm telling you -- it's a big, big deal. You can't exaggerate that fact. And if they could just show up and play well and maybe give Italy a run for its money ... I know it sounds superficial, but they have no idea what it would do for morale."
The Kaiserslautern region, referred to as K-Town by many of the 50,000 Americans who live here, is the second-largest military population outside the U.S. It's a virtual slice of Americana in the middle of Germany. On the bases of Ramstein and Landstuhl, there are baseball diamonds. Pop Tarts. Bowling alleys. And televisions with ESPN.
Here, people walk the grounds in Michigan State sweatshirts. The dollar is the only form of currency accepted. And the hospital walls are lined with portraits of American cities.
"The thing I like most and I know it sounds silly," Modlin said, "is being able to get my Pop Tarts."
U.S. midfielder Bobby Convey echoed those thoughts earlier this week. The team stayed at Ramstein back in March when it faced Poland at Fritz-Walter and is doing the same this week. Convey said he was most looking forward to getting some American cereal.
"You feel like you're in America. It's amazing," he said. "You don't realize there are that many [Americans] there."
The team grasps its importance to the military fans. During that trip in March, the team visited injured soldiers at Landstuhl and signed autographs. It left a lasting impression on both the staff members and players alike.
"It was a bit touching," said forward Eddie Johnson. "To go in there, when you come from a country where soccer's not that big ... they made us actually feel like heroes."
Johnson stirred headlines earlier this week when he compared Saturday's match against Italy to a war. On Friday, manager Bruce Arena defended his forward, saying the comments were blown out of proportion.
"That's stupid if anyone believes that was really an intended use of that word," he said. "It's a little distorted. We are playing a game."
But Sweeney and Modlin agreed the words weren't all that farfetched.
"It's obviously just a game," Sweeney said. "But to a certain extent, he's kind of right."
On this day, the real war is staring Sweeney right in the face, coming off that bus one soldier at a time. Only one of the 18 patients is "C-Cat," requiring an airborne intensive care unit. Struggling with intense chest pains, that patient is the first removed from the bus. As for the others, some are sleeping, some smiling. Some are wearing sunglasses, some are staring into the distance. They are young and old, male and female. Some have tubes sticking out of their limp bodies, others look like they could have walked right off the bus with nary a helping hand.
They're greeted by a chaplain, members of Sweeney's admittance staff and a representative from their respective branches of the military. Within 15 minutes, they're all carried off the bus, rolled into the hospital and admitted without issue.
"A good day," Sweeney declares. "Nothing too difficult to look at."
Earlier this week, Maj. Bob Lefler was one such patient. Stationed in Kosovo, he was rushed to Germany for open-heart surgery on Monday and is recuperating at Landstuhl, bouncing off his hospital room walls in anticipation of Saturday's match.
"I was here back in December for a month and I kept thinking to myself, 'I need to get back here for the World Cup,'" Lefler said. "I just didn't think it would be this way."
Lefler, who had planned to watch the Americans' opening match against the Czech Republic in Kosovo before falling ill, said the U.S. performance in the World Cup means more to the military than most would imagine. It's not only because of what the team represents, wearing the red, white and blue or the U.S. crest across their chests. It's because soccer is the world's game. Everywhere U.S. soldiers go -- Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kosovo, Korea, wherever -- the game is understood. There are no cultural boundaries.
"In Kosovo, that country is very sad shape," Lefler said. "There are these villages that have nothing left. But you better believe they've still got a soccer field. And you can't help but pick up on that. It's a big boost to see Americans out there on the field in a World Cup. These boys need to know how important this is."
Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org