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A Pakistani boy with a broken leg, helped by Cpl. Andrew Woughter and the boy's mother, tries out his new crutches, built by a U.S. Navy Seabee.
A Pakistani boy with a broken leg, helped by Cpl. Andrew Woughter and the boy's mother, tries out his new crutches, built by a U.S. Navy Seabee. (Eric S. Powell / Courtesy of U.S. Navy)
A Pakistani boy with a broken leg, helped by Cpl. Andrew Woughter and the boy's mother, tries out his new crutches, built by a U.S. Navy Seabee.
A Pakistani boy with a broken leg, helped by Cpl. Andrew Woughter and the boy's mother, tries out his new crutches, built by a U.S. Navy Seabee. (Eric S. Powell / Courtesy of U.S. Navy)
Petty Officer 2nd Class John Howard finishes building crutches he designed for the 212th MASH in Muzaffarabad, Pakistan.
Petty Officer 2nd Class John Howard finishes building crutches he designed for the 212th MASH in Muzaffarabad, Pakistan. (Eric S. Powell / Courtesy of U.S. Navy)

Some guys with the Seabees’ Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 74 think John Howard looks like Ron Howard, when he was about 6 years old and played Opie on the “Andy Griffith Show.”

Opie, though, wasn’t tall and rangy. He had no mustache. He didn’t smoke Marlboros one after the other, and let you bum one whenever you wanted.

And Opie didn’t know the first thing about earthquakes in Pakistan, or tearful children with broken legs who’d maybe lost a mother or father.

Howard, though, packed his bags for Pakistan when his unit deployed from Okinawa with those children in mind: Hard hat, check. Flashlight, check. Teddy bears and Hot Wheels, check.

“I wanted to try to cheer them up a little bit,” he said. “I don’t like to see little kids in pain.”

The 28-year-old petty officer second class didn’t expect to become the children’s crutch-maker, however. That just happened.

Howard was working in the yard at the Seabees’ camp in Muzaffarabad, probably making a table for the 212th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, he said, when he was approached by his master sergeant. The hospital needed child-size crutches, the master sergeant said.

“Make ’em,” the master sergeant told Howard.

“I thought how to do it,” Howard said. “What I came up with — when I was a kid, my dad made us some stilts to mess around with. So that’s where I got the idea.”

The MASH people knew they’d need crutches for kids; broken and crushed limbs are among the commonest earthquake-related injuries.

“In Angola, we had to hand out crutches left and right,” said Cpl. Andrew Woughter, hospital orthopedic technician. And there hadn’t even been an earthquake there.

But as the unit hurried to deploy to Pakistan, just a couple of weeks after returning from a month in Angola, there were no crutches available, Woughter said.

He put in an emergency order, “but we knew we weren’t going to get them until after we got here. I thought, ‘Maybe we should go ask the Seabees to make some.’ They sent me Mr. Howard. He said, ‘Just give me the measurements and we’ll go from there.’”

Howard said he put a lot of thought into what sort of crutches he would build.

First, he decided he’d start with 2x4s.

“I know they live in the mountains,” he said of his clientele, who needed something sturdy. “They’re stiff, but they’re not too heavy, either,” he said of his handiwork.

“They’re definitely one of a kind. They’re definitely hand-made, custom-ordered. I go over and make sure they fit and adjust the handle before I let them walk out with them,” he said. “They seem to take to them pretty well.”

He made the crutches — some six pair in about a week — during his off time, when he wasn’t doing his usual Seabee mission of rubble-clearing and other construction.

He was glad to do it, he said. “I’m glad I came here. I’m just glad I can help these people,” he said.

He has other things to keep him busy, too. After striking up a friendship with Woughter, Howard spent evenings volunteering in the hospital, helping move patients or doing whatever was needed. “I taught him how to do an IV yesterday,” Woughter said. “He did it better than some medics do.”

“It’s that builder touch,” Howard said modestly. “Did he show you the spot where I stuck him?”

Building the crutches gave him another idea. Now he’s considering building some stilts, he said, for the guys.

“Maybe make a couple pair and see if they want to have some stilt races,” he said.

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