Day 1 in Germany has sobering effect

November, 8, 2012
LANDSTUHL, Germany -- 1st Sgt. Davidson Christmas sat up in his bed as Michigan State coach Tom Izzo and captains Derrick Nix and Russell Byrd walked into his hospital room, ecstatic that he had visitors, even for just a few minutes.

Christmas was injured "down range," the term used here by military personnel for Afghanistan. He didn't want to get into how he was hurt or the extent of his injuries. All he knew was that he was going home to the United States. He wasn't happy.

"It's tough to leave this team here," he said. "I'm disappointed."

His reaction left the three Spartans stunned. Christmas told them that he wanted to conclude the mission with his team, not leaving anyone behind or letting them fend for themselves.

Michigan State's Derrick Nix, Russell Byrd and Tom IzzoCourtesy Andy Katz Michigan State coach Tom Izzo and captains Derrick Nix and Russell Byrd visited with 1st Sgt. Davidson Christmas in Landstuhl, Germany.

The story resonated.

And this was Day 1 in Germany.

There is a different feel in the hours after Michigan State and Connecticut landed in Frankfurt and made the 90-minute drive to Ramstein Air Base, the largest concentration of American military personnel in Europe.

The celebratory nature of last season's inaugural military game on the USS Carl Vinson off Coronado Island in San Diego's harbor is gone. That game -- including the arrival of President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama -- was an event.

This game, this trip, has had a sobering effect on the two teams involved.

"It hit me," said Izzo. "He wants to be with his team. We talk about sacrifice in sports, but this is the ultimate sacrifice."

The two teams spent the first few hours Wednesday on the ground touring the medical facilities at Ramstein and Landstuhl to fully grasp the importance of the work.

Flight commander Maj. Maria-Elena Coppola gave a tutorial to the two teams in separate classroom sessions Wednesday. She went into great detail on how this base is essentially the way station from the theater of war -- much earlier in the decade in Iraq, for much of the past five years in Afghanistan and at times in North Africa -- before the injured can be transported home or back into the field.

The injured are evacuated from the field to Ramstein, transported on gutted-out school buses and lined up -- literally stacked two in a row -- for transport to Landstuhl's hospital. Nurses, medics and doctors get the patients to the hospital in a glorified taxi service.

Coppola said at its height there were 1,500 to 1,700 patients a month coming through the hospital. Now the numbers have been cut down to roughly 600. The average number of battle injuries is 20 to 22 percent. Other injuries can be sports-related on the base or injuries in the field that aren't combat-related but, instead, could be a result of the conditions.

One female officer the players met Wednesday fell out of a makeshift bunk in the field and broke her back. Officials said she was a bit ashamed of her injury, but no one treated her differently. The players were thankful for her service. She, in turn, was extremely appreciative of their visit.

While seated in a small lecture room, Michigan State assistant coach Mike Garland asked what the average age of those here was. Coppola's response: 20-21. Garland said that was the same age as his players.

That's reality.

Nix said being a college student protects the players from feeling any sense of war. Here they don't see combat. But the visuals at the hospital and the words from the officers of what it means can penetrate.

While walking through the halls at Landstuhl, one woman from Indianapolis came out to see the Huskies and Spartans. She wanted hugs. She couldn't stop smiling that there were visitors.

"It makes the pain go away today," she said.

[+] Enlarge
Courtesy Andy Katz UConn players and coach Kevin Ollie met with military personnel at the USO Wounded Warrior Center.

While only a few players and one coach from Michigan State and Connecticut toured the hospital rooms, the rest took turns hanging out with those injured in the USO Wounded Warrior Center. There were televisions, a kitchen, computers and game rooms to keep everyone as content as possible.

The Landstuhl facility, which is about 20 minutes off base from Ramstein, is about to get its 70,000th patient since the Iraq and Afghanistan wars began. The average stay is roughly three days before they move home or back out.

With troops out of Iraq, Coppola said the numbers are dropping. If the withdrawal continues out of Afghanistan by 2014, it will dwindle even more. But there has to be substantial personnel in case of action elsewhere.

Landstuhl treats patients from all over NATO, dealing with troops from 51 countries. It also gets good news daily, as babies are born from the many who live here.

The teams were scheduled to see the working part of the base Thursday by taking C-130 flights. The base is one of the main refueling stops for military personnel who come through Europe on their way to the Middle East and Africa, as well as a dignitary stop for members of the presidential administration, Congress and the Department of Defense.

The base works like its own city. There is traffic toward the end of the day, with thousands of personnel leaving to go home off the base. The hotel and mall is fully functional, and the fitness center, where the two teams worked out Wednesday night, looked just like a number of practice facilities in the United States.

Both Michigan State and Connecticut attempted to stay on East Coast time, which created a long Wednesday after arriving on red-eye flights in the morning. UConn practiced from 8 to 10 p.m. in Germany while Michigan State went from 10 to midnight. In his true form, new UConn coach Kevin Ollie was as intense as ever, drilling his Huskies into believing they are the quickest and most athletic team in the game Friday night. It's his way to combat the physical play of the Spartans.

Izzo led just as spirited a practice late into the night.

The intensity has rubbed off. Maybe it was the sight of fatigue by most personnel on the base, or possibly the sobering talks they had earlier in the day. But it is hitting home.

One officer said Friday night may be the only time any of the troops see a college basketball game in person. It's a cool distraction for a regimented life with a well-intended purpose.

How much the players remember this when they get home is unknown. But you can tell they are soaking it all in while they're here.

Andy Katz | email

ESPN Senior Writer



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