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ARLINGTON, Va. — The U.S. military has diverted the medical evacuations of about 20 servicemembers wounded in Afghanistan to a hospital in Iraq because of the ash plume preventing usual air travel into Germany.

Typically, wounded Americans and others requiring a medical evacuation are flown from the war zone directly to Landstuhl, Germany, and then on to the United States — often to Joint Base Andrews, just outside of Washington.

But the volcanic eruption in Iceland has shut down air travel over much of Europe, requiring military flight diversions to more southerly routes. Now troops may end up at Joint Base Balad in Iraq. The hospital is being used as a temporary hub for injured troops until medical evacuations to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany can resume, said Col. Dennis Beatty, the 332nd Expeditionary Medical Group deputy commander.

To accommodate the sudden influx of patients, hospital wings that had been shut down — due to the upcoming Iraq withdrawal — were reopened.

“In six hours,” he said, “we were able to double our capacity.”

But the injured troops won’t be staying long. Most will be put back onto flights headed to the U.S. within about 12 hours, Beatty said.

“It really is designed around the medical reality that survival, and taking the best care of our soldiers possible, needs to have an intermediate stop where they are properly stabilized and given care that may not be able to be efficiently given out here,” said Brig. Gen. Stephen Kwast, commander of the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, who spoke to Pentagon reporters via satellite. “That intermediate stop saves lives, and it needs to be done.”

A Pentagon spokesman said those evacuated to Balad will later have to stop for a refueling in Naval Station Rota, Spain, on their way to Washington. A statement from Balad public affairs said the 332nd Expeditionary Medical Group anticipates “the average patient load to increase by about 50 patients per day.”

Kwast said there is “no degradation in care because we are going to Balad instead of Landstuhl”.

Stars and Stripes reporters Seth Robbins in Baumholder, Germany, and Jeff Schogol in Arlington, Va., contributed to this report.


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