Nightly News   |  December 04, 2013

Wounded soldiers journey out of Afghanistan

For wounded soldiers, the long journey home begins at Bagram Air Base where patients are loaded onto a massive C-17 and flown to Germany. From there they are transferred to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.  NBC’s Richard Engel reports.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> we are back and with the talk of late of america's longest war and when the u.s. is leaving afghanistan it's important to remember there are still tens of thousands of american troops in harm's way. over the past 12 years, 51,000 u.s. service members have been injured in iraq and afghanistan . sadly, that figure continues to rise. tonight our chief foreign correspondent richard engel takes us aboard the first flight to safety on the long journey home.

>> reporter: the journey home for wounded troops began at 2:00 a.m . at bagram air base . 18 patients loaded onto a massive c-17. marine corporal michael hall from marietta, georgia, insisted on walking aboard. it's a struggle. hall was hit by a rocket a week ago. shrapnel in his neck nearly severed his spine. soon, it's time to go. eight hours to germany. hall thought about the marines he was leaving in afghanistan .

>> i don't want to leave them out there. i'm going home . i'm going to be home for christmas and they're not.

>> reporter: specialist clarissa tiller with a back injury cuddled a bear her husband gave her. the in-flight meal -- rations. nurse michelle o'connor tried to lift spirits. she baked an apple pie , gave hall a slice. on the ground, the patient gos to the medical center . care has come a long way since 9/11. doctors say 99% of troops who lived through their initial injuries now survive. dr. jerry fortuna estimates he's done a thousand surgeries on u.s. troops .

>> all the guys are super positive. they are special individuals. they know they are getting quality, world class care. they know they are going to do well when they get out of here.

>> reporter: corporal hall was doing well.

>> make your ankle go back.

>> reporter: he's lucky to be alive. hall was with another marine when the rocket exploded five feet away.

>> he heard it, looked up. i said, that's not what you want to do.

>> reporter: hall tackled the marine to shield him from the blast.

>> i just went, you know. he was from me to you away. just lunged at him. when i did that, that's when the round impacted.

>> reporter: that marine whose life hall may have saved, this is him. he was at the medical center , too. came on another flight. hall didn't know he was here.

>> what's up, buddy?

>> reporter: this is the first time he have seen each other since afghanistan .

>> quorum him tackling me. i'm sure it's something.

>> you were just standing there. you didn't know what to do.

>> i didn't know what was going on.

>> reporter: they are on the mend. but every day, new flights arrive with new injured. richard engel , nbc news, germany.