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Seabees Work Their Miracles at MASH Camp
Stars and Stripes  |  By Nancy Montgomery  |  November 01, 2005
MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan — The Seabees put on their hard hats and got on their backhoes, and throughout the land, the people rejoiced.

“The Seabees are here!” cried members of the 212th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, as they watched their three usable latrines become seven, lickety- split, and saw shaving tables with mirrors and water for washing hands appear where nothing had been before.

“It’s easy,” said Senior Chief Petty Officer Ed Thomas. “We had the equipment, we got the tools. It makes us look good because a lot of this stuff is easy.”

Still to come, when the gravel arrived to make a drainage bed, were to be showers, with, miraculously, hot water.

“The Seabees are wonderful,” said one nurse, who, like other MASH members had not had a shower for more than a week after arriving in Muzaffarabad on Oct. 24 from Germany.

“The Seabees are saving our behinds — literally,” said 2nd Lt. Joe Letourneau, noting the upgrade in the latrines, now with steps and doors that closed, and featuring lime-filled trenches to speed decomposition rather than barrels filled with jet fuel whose contents were burned daily just a few feet away.

And on Sunday night, the Seabees, once nearly heroes, turned legend. Inside a magical green tent, there were showers for everyone — with, unbelievably, hot water.

Nurses cajoled their friends already in their sleeping bags to get up, go out into the chilly night and take a shower.

“It’s miraculous,” said one. “Orgasmic,” said another.

“It was great,” said Maj. Barbara King, pink and glowing after her shower Monday morning. “I love those Seabees.”

While MASH doctors, nurses, and staff have been busy saving lives for the past week, the Seabees’ construction workers and engineers were making life worth living for the MASH.

“They make it happen,” said Capt. Tom Sherbert, MASH operations officer. “They had tents in the ground in two or three hours. Their reputation definitely precedes them. They’re the super engineers.”

The 110 Seabees who started arriving Wednesday to work on Pakistani earthquake victims’ behalf had suffered their own natural disaster just weeks before.

The Seabees are from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 74, out of Gulfport, Miss. Hurricane Katrina hit Gulfport hard. Chief equipment officer Derrick Arrington was able to leave Okinawa, Japan, where the battalion is currently deployed for six months, and go home for 11 days to check on his house. He had roof and water damage, an insurance adjuster came, and, “They paid me — $10,000 — just like that,” Arrington said. “But some guys lost everything.”

The Seabees set up their own razor-wired encampment near the MASH camp, on a government compound guarded by Pakistani soldiers and police. Their mission, expected to last 30 days or longer, was undecided until Sunday, when it was determined they’d focus on moving earthquake rubble away from schools.

The Seabees weren’t planning to work on the MASH camp but decided they might as well help out. “They were here and they obviously needed a little assistance,” Thomas said. “We just kind of noticed field sanitation needed a little improvement.”

The MASH has put its energy into its mission, providing medical care for, so far, hundreds of Pakistanis hurt in the Oct. 8 earthquake or sick for other reasons.

In the meantime, their own creature comforts have come slowly. They eat their MREs sitting on the ground — the Seabees built picnic tables for themselves — have been sleeping in tents that are hot during the day and cold at night. Finding a cup of coffee in the morning — a few savvy soldiers brought hot plates and coffeemakers — or even a cup is a major coup.

Both the Seabees and the MASH have had to deal with logistics problems — equipment coupled with the wrong parts, latrines without barrels — and ingenuity has been the order of the day. Day by day, however, things were getting better.

The Seabees can put up three tents in about 40 minutes. It took a little longer for the MASH.

“We’re a medical unit. It’s not what we do,” said Spc. Todd Guggisberg, a MASH combat medic. “We don’t build stuff. We fix people.”

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