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As Afghanistan war ramps up, one hospital hunkers down to treat soldiers – and Taliban

Medics at a British base in Helmand – the epicenter of the Afghanistan war – cope with sadness, stress, and the ethical pangs of caring for the ‘enemy.’

By Aidan JonesCorrespondent / January 21, 2010

Camp Bastion, Afghanistan

A Chinook helicopter rumbles ominously overhead, quickly followed by ambulance sirens as another critically injured soldier arrives at Camp Bastion's field hospital.

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It is a grim ritual punctuating days and nights at the British base in Helmand Province, a frequent reminder that the insurgency shows no signs of abating despite the deepening winter.

NATO forces suffered a deadly 2009, the worst in eight years of war in Afghanistan, with the most intense fighting taking place in this province.

Medics here are all too aware of the grinding conflict. On bad days they admit flurries of British, American, and Afghan troops and civilians – and even Taliban fighters – to the emergency department, one of the few permanent structures in the vast, bleak, rubble-strewn camp.

And tough months may be ahead, as President Barack Obama's troop surge crescendos, putting more boots on Helmand's IED-studded ground.

"Neither side wants to be out in these conditions, but it seems like the Taliban are prepared to brave it this time round," says Col. Peter Gilbert, commanding officer of 256 Field Hospital, the British unit leading the care. "We've seen several significant episodes since November, whereas perhaps we were expecting the fighting to slow down."

A steady flow of patients

Col Gilbert's unit is staffed by 90 National Health Service (NHS) volunteers, working long hours alongside 60 US Navy medics for three or four months at a time.

There are few creature comforts at Bastion to break up the monotony of the eat-sleep-work “triangle” that a tour entails.

But the routine is made bearable by the great pride the medics take in their work. They have made many “remarkable saves” at the hospital – patients who in previous wars would have almost certainly died – and the unit is rapidly becoming known as the world's leading center for trauma surgery and aftercare.

It is a reputation complemented by a fast-flowing treatment “passageway,” which sees injured soldiers picked up from the front line, operated on, stabilized, and evacuated to Europe within 12 to 48 hours.

"Many of the ones who don't make it are young lads. That's something everyone feels deeply," says Capt. Simon Cook, who is part of the resuscitation team.

Of the British deaths last year, 61 were under age 25. The increasing sophistication and size of the Taliban's IEDs has also maimed dozens of young men.