MASH unit reaches quake victims after 27-hour convoy
MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan — “Have you been briefed on the route?” the Army captain asked. “It’s scary. Just close your eyes and go to sleep. And when you wake up, maybe you’ll be in heaven.”
But heaven was never apparent during the convoy from hell that took Army medics, nurses, doctors, mechanics and others from an air base near Islamabad to the center of earthquake response in Muzaffarabad.
Soldiers of the 212th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital plan to be in Muzaffarabad for about three months to help victims of the Oct. 8 quake.
Forty vehicles started Sunday morning on the 150-mile trek that followed narrow, winding mountainside lanes featuring donkeys, honking, fabulously decorated Pakistani trucks and impassioned passers. The journey was supposed to take seven hours.
But by the time the MASH unit finally arrived at the site for the hospital — more than 27 hours later and missing its operating room — the convoy had set a new record in delay and discomfort, besting by six hours what had been the previous record, MASH soldiers said. The former record was a supposed three-hour convoy that actually took 19 hours during the MASH’s last deployment in Angola.
After some 12 hours Sunday spent on — and off — the road, soldiers were starting to realize that the Angola record might fall.
“Oh, we’re going to blow that record away,” said Maj. James Mancuso, a preventive medicine expert from Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany and attached to the 212th, during one of the convoy’s many stops. “We may even double it,” he said, his tall frame crammed into a tiny seat on one of four Pakistani shuttle buses carrying soldiers and gear.
The convoy was plagued by some relatively minor mechanical problems and one huge conceptual problem. When Pakistani military officers accompanying the convoy laid eyes on the trailers hooked to 5-ton trucks and carrying, among other things, the hospital’s most important unit — its self-contained operating room — they knew immediately that the trailers made the vehicles too long to navigate sharp turns on the narrow mountain roads.
“They looked at it and said, ‘Oh my gosh! That’s never going to make it up the mountain,’ ” said Maj. Soo Lee Davis. The officers hadn’t seen the trailers until they rolled out of the air base gate, Davis said.
The Pakistanis were sure in their judgment, more so than a MASH route reconnaissance team that had previously scouted the way. Of that five-man team, three thought the trailers could make it. The two others weren’t so sure.
But because the operating room was too heavy to airlift, yet so essential, the risk in driving it there seemed acceptable.
The Pakistanis saw it differently, saying that if the vehicles got stuck, the 212th would be responsible for blocking a central route carrying supplies and ambulances to earthquake victims.
Negotiations on that matter kept soldiers sitting by the side of the road in 87-degree heatfor four hours just five miles from where they had started. But it was even hotter for Davis.
She twice relayed the Pakistanis’ concerns to the 212th’s commander, Col. Angel Lugo, who gave approval to send back the OR after Davis told him the Pakistanis assured her they would provide flatbeds to transport it the next day. Then she had to call Central Command’s Disaster Assistance Center, which is overseeing all U.S. military humanitarian efforts in Pakistan.
“That was a much harder sell,” Davis said.
The assistance center told Davis that if she wasn’t bringing her OR capabilities with her, there was no reason to proceed.
“They were very upset,” Davis said. “They’re working at a higher strategic level.”
Then things got even stickier. Someone misunderstood the Pakistani officers’ advice not to proceed with the trailers as a refusal to accompany the convoy. That got the Pakistani government involved and upset until everything was clarified and understood.
It was determined that the MASH could provide lower-level care without its OR beginning Monday, and that the OR, along with the pharmacy and equipment sterilization unit, which were also left behind, would arrive via flatbed truck Monday or Tuesday night.
The convoy drove on. Then it stopped again.
Brake failure in a 5-ton caused a two-hour delay as mechanics fixed the problem by the side of the road. There was a dinner break at a gas station, and, shortly after, a stop to coddle an over-heated 5-ton. After midnight, Davis decided that the convoy should pull into a former Pakistani army base so people could sleep a few hours. They slept on the ground in their sleeping bags, if they had them, or huddled around a fire. Most, though, sat up and nodded off in the shuttle buses.
“I got a solid three hours. I ended up with back pain, but that’s OK,” said Sgt. 1st Class Carlos Rivera.
The rest of the drive Monday morning went without incident, other than a brief stop to let hundreds of donkeys led by Pakistani men pass.
“That was the most adventurous travel I’ve undertaken in some time,” said Capt. Dale George, a 212th anesthesiologist.
“I kept passing out. Then waking up. Then passing out,” said Spc. Jennifer Sedlack, a surgical technician.
Most everyone took it all — the waiting, the lack of sleep, the Meals, Read to Eat, the cowering under bushes by the road to relieve oneself — in stride.
“Sometimes the kitchen gets very dirty when you’re making an extraordinary meal,” said Lugo. “In this case, it’s world-class health care.”