Miesau-based unit did the job in what may be MASH concept's curtain call
Stars and Stripes June 22, 2003
MIESAU ARMY DEPOT, Germany — Early on the morning of March 21, Lt. Col. Ken Canestrini, commander of the 212th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, called his men and women together for a few last words before crossing into Iraq.
This is how Capt. Art Finch remembers it: “He said, ‘I don’t know what forces conspired to bring this group of people together at this time, and at this place. But this is the best medical unit in the U.S. Army.’
“Now, all commanders say their unit is the best, and the words could have rung hollow,” Finch added. “But he was right.”
Occasionally, the right people do come together, and great things happen, say 212th soldiers.
Members of the Army’s last MASH came home from what may be the MASH concept’s final war, convinced there is no other unit like theirs. It would be too simplistic and sentimental to reduce the 212th to “the little hospital that could.” The mobile hospital’s success is far more complex than that — two years of a relentless revamping of skills, mobility and esprit de corps. And it all worked.
The 212th was supposed to be one of seven Army hospitals supporting the 140,000 American soldiers who invaded Iraq. Instead, only the 212th made it to the front — the only operating Army hospital in Iraq for the first 19 days of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The 212th MASH’s war started with an opening 78-hour, 270-mile convoy into Iraq. It was the first time since the Korean War that a MASH unit had raced along with combat soldiers “seizing ground” in a war, Canestrini said.
At one point into the unrelenting three-day dash toward Baghdad from an assembly base in Kuwait, 212th soldiers pulled their vehicles off to the side of a six-lane highway outside Nasiriya.
“Nobody knew why we were stopping,” Finch said. Then, the entire Brigade Combat Team of the Fort Stewart, Ga.-based 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division blew by. Finch realized only then that the medical unit had pushed past the front. They were the front.
“It was a surreal experience,” he said.
That happened not once, but three times.
“I don’t think we had an understanding of how deep we were; of what was all around us,” said Sgt. 1st Class Zimberlist Hester.
Nothing to the north but the heart of Saddam’s defenses in Baghdad. Nothing to the south but the Medina Division of Saddam’s Republican Guard.
It was, in short, exactly where they were supposed to be.
Canestrini said he’ll never forget turning around at about 6 p.m. on March 24 — only three hours after the 30-person advanced party arrived at the site that was to become Camp Bushmaster — and seeing the main body of his troops racing toward him across the desert.
“It was like a land rush! There were vehicles five across,” he said. “There were my guys! What a sight.”
To the commander’s amazement and relief, all 37 vehicles, including 32, 5-ton trucks, that were supposed to be there were there. The nine doctors, 19 nurses and assorted medical technicians would have the 569 pieces needed to assemble a hospital that could do everything, including brain surgery.
They arrived just in time for the worst sandstorm in 30 years, which hit March 25.
“It was pitch black in the middle of the day,” Canestrini said. “We just had to stop.”
But not for long. The 212th had 12 beds up when the wounded started coming in.
“Talk about getting there just in time. Talk about getting there for the fight!” he said.
As anticipated, casualties — soldiers wounded when Iraqis hit a Bradley fighting vehicle with rocket-propelled grenades — started coming just as the main convoy caught up with the advanced team.
“It was almost a storybook cliché,” Staff Sgt. Charlton Chase said. “I don’t know if you could have scripted a movie any better.”
With the nearest heavily armed force — the Illesheim, Germany-based 2nd Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment — about a half-hour away, the 212th spent March 24 to April 21 at Camp Bushmaster. It’s unlikely that anyone will write a best seller about those 29 days of war, or cast this MASH into a movie or a television series with boozy surgeons and cross-dressing clerks. During the war, reporters drifted through the 212th, but left with combat units in which they were embedded. Only the MASH members themselves documented their war, taking turns with a digital camera, producing more than 1,000 photographs.
There are photos of doctors and patients covered with blood. There are haunted faces of Iraqi families and the ebullient smiles of survivors.
There was the 4-year-old with gunshot wounds who lived.
There was the soldier whose chest doctors had to open up so he could be resuscitated.
There was the 22-year-old soldier with burns over 65 percent of his body, who died despite the best efforts of the docs.
“This one was tough on the staff,” Canestrini says quietly, looking at the photo for a long time.
Multiply that by the 406 people admitted to the MASH. Times the 167 surgical procedures. Times the 377 people evacuated by helicopters or C-130s.
“About half the time, we had both [operating] tables going,” Canestrini said.
At one point, they had to “flex up” the intensive care unit from 36 beds to 56 beds, with cots spilling over into half of the tactical operations center, he said.
Seeing all the casualties “touches every single person in the hospital,” Finch said.
In their recollections of the Iraq campaign, 212th soldiers seem amazed themselves they somehow mastered, if only for one critical mission, the infinite variables of getting people and equipment through the worst that war and nature threw at them.
The funny thing is, the 212th never got everything right in exercises, said Chase and Hester. In training exercises, things would have never gone as well as they did in real life, Hester said.
“It would have been nice, but it never would have happened,” he said. “In training, it never worked that way! And it worked perfectly in the deployment.”
Each person interviewed readily acknowledged plenty of tough times.
“We could have failed,” Chase said.
“We could have said, ‘Screw it, we’re gonna go play volleyball’” instead of putting in the extra work on maintaining trucks or going to the field. But somewhere along the line, the 212th bought “hook, line and sinker” into the idea they were the best, Chase said.
“When you buy into that … you can’t help but be good,” he said.
The 212th succeeded because soldiers were willing to do much more — to put up with much more — than they ever had before. No one showered for 13 days after they went to war to conserve the hospital’s water rations for medical procedures, Canestrini said. Officers and doctors became truck drivers, Finch said. After the 212th arrived at Camp Udari in Kuwait for the postwar buildup, medical personnel such as X-ray technicians, pharmacy techs, nurses and doctors spent hours each day driving around Camp Udari to make sure enough people were qualified to relieve truck drivers during the long convoy to Baghdad. It didn’t end there.
Finch, a psychologist, took an unofficerlike M-16 along with his standard-issue M-9. If he was going to war, “I wanted to take a serious weapon.”
Sure enough, he spent the 212th’s first night in Iraq pulling guard duty with 25 other soldiers.
When fighting subsided and other medical units started moving in, Finch said, he experienced something amazing. He’d awaken each day with the feeling something was missing in his life. The intensity of life in the middle of war. The camaraderie. The surging energy and emotion.
“It caught me off guard,” he said. “I, of all people.”
Coming back to Germany was a shock, he said.
“This world felt really artificial” for a while, he said. “It’ll take a year for me to metabolize what happened.”
What happened was this: The 212th went to war. Most commanders work for two years to prepare the unit for something that never happens, “then they get an exit eval” on their way to a new job, Canestrini said. He got to see members of his unit do everything asked of them, he said.
“You can’t be prouder than that.”