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The mission has shifted in Pakistan.

Before, the soldiers of the 212th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital scrambled to save lives and fix broken bodies from the Oct. 8 earthquake.

Now, around 300 patients are treated at the hospital each day, but most of the cases are not injuries from the earthquake, which killed more than 73,000 people and left up to 3 million people homeless. Instead, the medics and nurses are treating mostly stomach pain, thyroid conditions, and minor sprains and illnesses. The rest of the 200-soldier team is providing support as needed.

With Christmas Eve marking their 60th day in the country, troops with the Miesau, Germany-based task force have settled into Muzaffrabad, focused on treating day-to-day maladies, making the best of the holidays and wondering when they will be going home.

“We had a huge party for Christmas,” Staff Sgt. Tyrone White said in a telephone interview. “It’s nothing like being home, but we’re kind of like a family here. We gave out some awards, and we had some guys up there singing to put us in the Christmas spirit.”

Sing-alongs such as “The Twelve Days of Christmas” brightened the holiday, White said, as did a Christmas decorating contest that was won by the maintenance section led by Spc. Sunni Baker.

Instead of the Meals, Ready to Eat they consumed at the beginning of their deployment, the troops now eat hot food provided twice a day by contractors.

Sgt. Benjamin Bradley, a network administrator, said the secure and nonsecure communication links have been touch and go.

“We use satellites here,” Bradley said. “Between us and Germany, we have a lot of weather problems, a lot of power problems. Other than that, it holds up pretty well.”

Weather has cooperated. On Thursday, White said temperatures reached into the 60s, but nights are about 30 degrees colder.

A New Year’s Eve celebration is planned.

“We’ll make the best out of it,” White said. “We’ll have our near-beer and sparkling grape juice.”

The 212th task force, which includes soldiers from the Würzburg, Germany-based 67th Combat Support Hospital, set up about 10 miles from the epicenter of the earthquake, about 70 miles north of Islamabad in northeastern Pakistan.

“We’ve had an extremely positive reaction from everyone, from the Pakistan military to the local governments, and certainly from our patients,” said Col. Angel Lugo, the task force commander.

The Germany-based soldiers aren’t sure when they’ll be returning to Europe.

“We don’t have a firm date,” Lugo said. “It’s up to [U.S. Central Command]. The government of Pakistan has asked us to remain, that is, the capability of a hospital, not necessarily the 212th.”

Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld each visited the MASH in recent weeks, and “it was pretty good to see the leadership come out,” Lugo said.

Bradley said the deployment was not his first but has been his longest. He has a wife and 1-year-old son back in Germany, and wonders when he’ll see them next.

“One minute we think we’ll be going back at the end of January, and then they say we may stay until March,” Bradley said. “Nobody really knows.”

Like thousands of other troops who are deployed during the holidays, including about 1,000 in Pakistan, Bradley was feeling the same pangs from being away.

“It’s pretty lonely, I guess,” Bradley said. “The units tried to make it more festive and did a fairly good job. But without the family around, it’s really tough.”


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