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Kuwait City

We were off at the crack of dawn--reporter Mark Dulmage, shooter Sean Maroney, Ali our guide, and myself--to sniff out a tip we had gotten the day before. An army surgeon had found his way into the CNN workspace with an interesting tale; his MASH unit1 was up on the Iraq border, patching up Iraqi civilians, resistance fighters, and even regular army soldiers (meaning Iraqi soldiers--ed.) injured in the fighting inside Iraq. This raised several questions. How were these Iraqis from deep into Iraq getting onto American medevac choppers? Why were American field hospitals treating them? How much more was the U.S. military doing in this supposedly internal affair?2 And the burning question for most of these doctors and nurses: why were they, a reserve unit called up for war, still in the field treating civilians? So we set out to find the 807th and maybe some answers.

Incoming: a medevac chopper lands
Even as I was writing about the MASH unit in my journal, someone at the 807th was writing about us in their After-Action Report.
We had to get lost to find them. The colonel had given Mark vague directions, but "go past the third knocked-out tank and turn left past the sand dunes" isn't much help in the Arabian wasteland. We bounced along for hours over rutted dirt roads, following occasional blind leads, our only clue the infrequent military vehicle with a red cross painted on the side. Adding to the concerns of Sean and myself in the back seat was the realization that Ali had neglected to gas up before our early departure. We watched the gauge fall below a quarter as we headed farther and farther west toward the Iraq border. Mark ordered us on, convinced it couldn't be much farther and that we would be welcomed with food, water, and fuel. I wondered how much gasoline an army would have if all its vehicles burn diesel. But finally, we saw a clump of dark shapes on the sandy horizon. I asked Ali to stop so I could check them through my binoculars, but Mark considered that a waste of time. Twenty minutes later, we rolled into the camp--unnoticed, unchallenged, and unannounced.

It didn't take long to draw a crowd. When they found out who we were, we were mobbed with part-time soldiers anxious to get home, and anxious to talk about it. The prevailing sentiment and oft-used phrase was "this isn't the Peace Corps." They told how they had been swamped the day before with over 50 Iraqis wounded in fighting, all flown in at once. While we were there, four more arrived--but these were children who had happened upon unexploded cluster bombs.

807th MASH Insignia The 807th disbanded in 1995,
but you can still buy the insignia
These veterans are holding a
twentieth anniversary reunion in
Paducah, Kentucky, in May 2011.  
It all made for a great story, including a day-old baby one of the doctors had just delivered. And the hospitality and attention we received was embarrassing. They fed us delicious hot chow (barbecued beef ribs) and filled our gas tank (with regular.) They were clearly sick and tired of the desert and being away from home, as they pumped us for news, or gossip, or any faint promise that they might be leaving. The whole scene could have come right out of a TV show. Sean and I found ourselves swarmed by nurses who were probably sick of seeing the same faces day after day; we must have presented quite a novelty to them. And when I realized that I was actually enjoying all the attention, it hit me that maybe I had been out there too long, too.

We were back in town by early afternoon and filed our report that evening; it led the news all day back in the States. We may be following it up in the future, and this time we'll know the way. And to fulfill a promise, I spent an hour that night on the phone3 calling folks in Austin, Texas, and Paducah, Kentucky, telling them their loved ones were doing fine and about to appear on TV.

1Editor's note, 2011: A "MASH" unit was a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. Yes, the same type of outfit immortalized in the movie and TV show of that name. The last MASH unit was deactivated in 2006 and the mobile hospital itself given to the Pakistani military.

2Editor's note, 2011: After Saddam agreed to a ceasefire with the U.S. and its allies, he was free to use his army as he saw fit inside his own country. While western troops patrolled the borders, western diplomats urged Iraqis to rise up and overthrow Saddam. These revolts were brutally crushed.

3Editor's note, 2011: The phone we used in our Kuwait bureau was an INMARSAT satellite phone, which cost about $5 per minute. Each CNN employee was allowed ten minutes a day to make personal calls home. An hour of calls to the families of interview subjects was a legitimate business expense and worth every penny.

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© 2011 Chuck Afflerbach for The Hick Town Times