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Fire Chief, Former Official to Donate Ambulance to Afghans

FITCHBURG, Mass. -- Former Ashburnham Town Administrator Kevin Paicos will return to war-torn Afghanistan on Friday, but unlike his last visit -- a tour of duty as a Special Forces medic -- he won't be carrying a gun.

Paicos, along with Ashburnham Fire Chief Paul Zbikowski, will travel to Farah, Afghanistan, to donate a new ambulance to the city.

The effort to donate the vehicle began during Paicos' tour, which ended last July.

Paicos recalled calling for an ambulance while attending to an injured Afghan civilian.

"This old Toyota pick-up showed up," Paicos said. "I said, 'Where's the ambulance?' and they said, 'This is it.'"

The city later upgraded to a Land Cruiser with two benches in the back, Paicos said, but the need for an emergency vehicle was clear nonetheless.

"After what I saw (at war), I'm 100 percent convinced this is the kind of effort it's going to take to establish a real economy there and give these people lives, instead of just ongoing war," Paicos said in a phone interview Wednesday.

Keeping in touch regularly through e-mail, Paicos and Zbikowski discussed ways to find an ambulance to donate.

Zbikowski began networking with other fire chiefs around Massachusetts, eventually learning of a back-up ambulance getting little use in Fire District 14, which includes 23 cities and towns in the Hopkinton/Southborough area.

District 14 agreed to donate the ambulance, which has already been shipped to Farah.

But if the effort began as an isolated act of charity, it has grown to much more.

"When Zibby got the ambulance, he didn't just get the ambulance," Paicos explained. "He got donations of motor oil, shock absorbers and other parts, and there's also the matter of training. We don't just want them to have an ambulance -- we want them to have a fully trained staff and know how to use it."

Paicos said he has filed the paperwork to start a charity to officially execute the donations. The organization may even have the capacity to fly Afghan medical staff to Ashburnham, train them as EMTs, and send them back to Afghanistan, he said.

Paicos, however, said he will pay for this trip out of his own pocket.

He and Zbikowski both expressed interest in acquiring more ambulances for donation to other Afghan cities.

Paicos and his wife, Ann, organized the donation 5,000 backpacks filled with school supplies for the reopening of a school Taliban terrorists had destroyed.

"This is now my hobby," Paicos said. "When I retire, this will be my retirement project. I'll probably go over (to Afghanistan) two or three times a year."

He said his wife has supported him, but not without some angst.

"I won't lie and say she's not concerned, because she is," he said. "But she's a very strong woman. I reassure her I'm there as a civilian, not in a combat role."

Zbikowski said his family's opinion played a big role in his decision to accept Paicos' invitation.

"I told them all the facts, and told them not to tell me right away, to just sit on it for a couple days," he said. "They were very supportive."

Paicos said he and Zbikowski, along with a local freelance photojournalist, will stay in Afghanistan "for about a week." But, due to security and travel concerns, no solid return date has been set.

In fact, much of the trip remains uncertain, Paicos said.

"There's a whole lot of make-it-up-as-we-go," he said. "Improv is a big part of this."

For instance, Paicos isn't sure how his party will get from Kabul to Farah.

"We're flying into Kabul International Airport, and then we're hoping to get a military aircraft or a plane from the U.S. Agency for International Development, and take that over to Farah," he said. "What's been suggested to me is that when we get to Kabul, I use my military connections to try to get us safely onto one of those air crafts."

Despite the challenges and uncertainties, Zbikowski and Paicos say fear has taken a back seat to excitement.

"My perspective is, when your number's called, your number's called," Zbikowski said. "That's life."

Paicos stressed the visit is "not like walking into an ambush."

Zbikowski said he's looking forward to bringing home a new perspective.

"I don't think people have a real understanding of what those people are going through," he said. "I know I don't. For them, war isn't something they're going through now, but it's something that's been going on thousands of years."

Paicos gave Zbikowski all the credit for pulling the donations together.

"I just keep asking him for stuff, and somehow, he keeps coming through," Paicos said.

He added that Afghan officials insisted he and Zbikowski be present for a ceremony next week to present the ambulance, but Paicos said that isn't why he chose to go.

"It's not an ego-driven thing," he said. "I could have cared less. But I'm interested in helping with the training and all the other details, and I want Zibby to get the recognition he deserves, and that's why I'm going."

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