LANDSTUHL, Germany — The hills of southwestern Germany, lush with fir trees and red-tiled houses, are thousands of miles from the theater of war. But for American troops wounded in Iraq, Landstuhl is a first stop on the long road to recovery.
Wards at the U.S. military hospital here also offer rare and fresh details about battles in Iraq, as American troops face the most serious challenge to the U.S. occupation since the fall of Saddam Hussein one year ago.
Stretched out on hospital beds, the grime of war still visible on their bodies, soldiers and Marines described their battles against Saddam stalwarts and a Shiite uprising that flared this week.
Cash and BMWs
"They seemed like they were well-funded," said Garriman Woods, a 30-year-old Marine staff sergeant who was leading a unit guarding a bridge on the edge of Fallujah, the flashpoint in Iraq's Sunni triangle, where insurgents ambushed four American private security officers and strung up their charred bodies.
"We captured one of their vehicles. They had a couple hundred dollars in American money. Then they had a lot more money hidden in other places in their car. And they were driving BMWs. There were several vehicles coordinating with one another."
Woods, an Indiana native who served a nine-month tour in Iraq during the initial phase of the war, returned in January for another eight-month mission. On Monday, insurgents launched four mortars at his unit. Shrapnel hit his leg.
Doctors operated on Woods on Thursday. He is expected to make a full recovery.
The Landstuhl Regional Medical Center has been a fixture on America's military landscape for more than five decades, serving as midway point for wounded troops returning home for treatment.
Since President Bush declared Iraq combat operations over in May 2003, nearly 3,000 servicemen and women have been wounded in action. More than half that number did not return to duty, reflecting the high number of combat casualties, and serious nature of injuries, from Iraq.
This week, as U.S. forces battled insurgents and a fierce Shiite uprising, the upsurge in violence has reverberated here in Germany. Hospital officials say there has been a dramatic increase in patients.
"I'm trying to catch up with all the new arrivals," said Army Chaplain Richard Ross.
Searching for support
Cpl. Richard Stayskal, a 22-year-old Marine from San Jose, Calif., arrived in Landstuhl Tuesday after being wounded by automatic weapon fire in Ramadi, west of Baghdad.
“I just kind of froze, my body clenched in the fetal position. I fell to the ground," Stayskal said.
Stayskal, a sniper, had been deployed to Ramadi to hunt down a "mad bomber," the unit's name for a man who had been seen planting roadside bombs targeted at U.S. and coalition forces.
With little warning, a group of 15 armed Iraqis descended on the lightly armed unit. The bullet that hit Stayskal ricocheted off his shoulder, through his lung and exited from his back. It came within inches of his heart and major arteries.
Countering the insurgency, Stayskal said, has been difficult for Marines on the ground. In his case, his unit was chronically short of ammunition, and his support unit got pinned down at the same time across town. The two units couldn't help each other.
"They weren't giving us nearly enough ammunition for the situations out there. Everyone was running out. Everyone was grabbing each other's ammunition."
Knowing the enemy
The Marines and soldiers interviewed agreed that the organization of the insurgency was impressive.
"We thought we would be up against guys, maybe one or two in a group," Garriman Woods said.
Lance Cpl.Miguel Martinez said the precision of the enemy clearly showed the insurgency was not launched by "civilians or anything like that."
"We don't really know who our enemy is," the 21-year-old from Simi Valley, Calif., said. "The only way we know to shoot them is they have an AK-47 and they pretty much point it at us."
The organization of the enemy, the Marines said, forced U.S. troops to hone their intelligence, and make sure it filters up and down the chain of command.
"When the daily intel comes in, we are sure to get it out there, out there to our Marines, so they can adjust their fighting tactics down to the smallest units that we have," Woods said.
"We want to make sure the smallest detail is passed down. It could be something as minute as kids playing in the streets. Or someone trying to target us."
Preston Mendenhall is an NBC News correspondent on assignment in Landstuhl, Germany.