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Mission of Mercy

HINGHAM, Mass. -- An idea hatched more than 15 months ago came to fruition last week when an ambulance from Massachusetts was handed over to the people of Farah City, Afghanistan.

Ashburnham Fire Chief Paul J. Zbikowski and Kevin E. Paicos, former Ashburnham official and current Hingham town administrator, attended a ceremony in the war-torn country March 11 where they made the official presentation of the ambulance and medical supplies. The event was attended by about 300 local residents and officials. Guests included Afghanistan's minister of public health Dr. Sayed Mohammad Amin Fatimie, and U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Ben Nicholson, Farah Provincial Reconstruction Team commander.

"All the planning, paperwork and scheduling that went into this. ... I didn't expect anything as big as the ceremony and the people that attended," Chief Zbikowski said. "You could tell by the way they were speaking, by the way the children looked at you, that they sincerely appreciated the donation."

The ambulance, previously used as a backup, came from Massachusetts Fire District 14, which includes Acton, Ashland, Boxboro, Carlisle, Concord, Framingham, Holliston, Hopedale, Hopkinton, Hudson, Lincoln, Marlboro, Maynard, Milford, Natick, Northboro, Sherborn, Shrewsbury, Southboro, Stow, Sudbury, Wayland, Westboro, and the Hanscom Air Base Fire Department.

Mr. Paicos, who served in Afghanistan as a medic as part of C Company, 1st Battalion 20th, Special Forces group, echoed Chief Zbikowski's comments.

"Kids are the compelling thing," Mr. Paicos said. "The tragic thing is they've had three generations of war. They know nothing more. We can't give them no war. We can give them small things to make their life better."

Farah is no stranger to the destructive ravages of war,

Lt. Cmdr. Nicholson, who is also part of the International Security Assistance Force said. He said after 28 years of continual strife, including a long Soviet occupation, civil war and harsh Taliban rule, the people are tired and weary - yet anxious to rebuild.

"Moving peace and stability forward is no easy task given the harsh surroundings and inhospitable conditions of the farthest reaches of Western Afghanistan," Lt. Cmdr. Nicholson said. "The ambulance donation will make it easier for PRT Farah to work on peacekeeping."

Provincial Reconstruction Team Farah is one of 26 operating in Afghanistan and working in partnership with communities around the country. Twelve of the teams are led by the United States, and 14 are led by NATO allies and coalition partners. Reconstruction teams help ensure that improvements in security are sustainable.

Donating an ambulance was an idea spurred by a real-life experience Mr. Paicos had while he was deployed to Afghanistan in November 2007.

"We were headed out on patrol and our convoy stopped because there was a kid lying in the middle of the road," Mr. Paicos said. "The young boy had been hit by the Afghanistan Military Police. His bike was mangled. He was bleeding from three or four different places. He was pretty bad."

Mr. Paicos said his training indicated the boy had a head injury. "I told the AMP to call for an ambulance and they said there was no ambulance. We had to throw the kid in the Humvee and get him to the hospital," Mr. Paicos said. "It was right then when I said to myself `I bet Zibby can get me an ambulance.'"

When Chief Zbikowski got the e-mail with that request his first thought was that Mr. Paicos had thrown a challenge out there.

"I put out a call for help to the Fire Chiefs Association of Massachusetts and the Mid-State Mutual Aid Association - looking for a good used ambulance," Chief Zbikowski said.

The ball was rolling.

By the end of November, District 14 had offered its mutual aid ambulance. Once the holidays were over Chief Zbikowski reached out to U.S. Rep. John W. Olver, D-Amherst, and state Sen. Stephen W. Brewer, D-Barre, for help and guidance to get the ambulance shipped and take care of the legal paperwork. It was then that he learned about the Denton Program, which allows private U.S. citizens and organizations to use space available on U.S. military cargo planes to transport humanitarian goods, such as clothing, food, medical and educational supplies, as well as agricultural equipment and vehicles, to countries in need. The program is jointly administered by the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. Department of State, and the U.S. Department of Defense.

"I kinda figured it would be easy now that we got someone to ship the ambulance," Chief Zbikowski said. "But that's where I was wrong. This was just the beginning."

He said he started the paperwork Jan. 30, 2008.

"This had to be the most painful part of the process, as we got so bogged down with the paperwork, signatures, signoffs, equipment and specification lists and inspectional process," Chief Zbikowski said.

On Feb. 20 District 14 officially donated the ambulance to the Ashburnham Firefighters Association. Over the next seven months, forms went back and forth between the U.S. and Afghanistan, Mr. Paicos returned home and the ambulance was finally approved for shipping.

"On Sept. 17 the ambulance was delivered to Westover Air Force Base," Chief Zbikowski said. "A week later it went to South Carolina and then to Germany. By the end of October it was in Kandahar, Afghanistan."

It was almost as difficult for the two men getting there. The risks when traveling to Afghanistan are high. It is a country that only has a partially functional electrical grid, poor road networks and constant threat of land mines. Around 60 people every month die because of land mines.

According to the U.S. Department of State, Afghanistan is effectively a war zone and people should be mindful of this as well as a deep-rooted mistrust of Westerners among some Afghans. There are pockets of Taliban supporters all over Afghanistan. A travel advisory has been in place for almost two years.

The pair flew from Boston to New Jersey, then took a 15-hour flight to Delhi, India. After a 12-hour layover they caught a plane to Kabul, Afghanistan. Although hoping to catch a connecting flight through USAID, the men were stuck in Kabul for two days before a seat became available. Kabul was a bit of a challenge Mr. Paicos said, explaining that they had made arrangements to stay on an International Security Assistance Force military base, but when they left the Kabul airport they mistakenly got into an unsecured taxi that drove them through the city streets to the wrong location. He said at that point they reached out to the U.S. forces, who in turn made a point to get the men escorted to the proper destination.

"That was the diciest part of the trip, I think," Mr. Paicos said. "Anyone could have come right up to us and taken us out. There would have been nothing we could have done."

On the return part of the trip the men were again stuck in Kabul for two days. This time, however, they were able to connect with U.S. military contacts they had established a few days earlier.

It was all worth it, both men agree.

"It was a heartwarming experience," Chief Zbikowski said. "Not just helping the Afghan people ... I felt comradely with the military folks. They really cared and appreciated what we were doing. A lot of people look at the military as the problem, but these are real people here from real families. We don't give them enough credit."

Mr. Paicos said the project itself was an effort to show Afghan people that Americans do care about their success and their ability to live in peace.

"The goal is to do economic development, not just give them an ambulance," Mr. Paicos said. "That's what is going to turn this thing around. Afghanistan is undoubtedly a very beautiful country and one that seems to offer a mysterious face to the world, with little known or understood about its culture and its people."

The men said this trip was the first of what they hope to be many. Fitchburg has agreed to donate an ambulance it doesn't use anymore and feelers have been put out for others.

"We want to put an ambulance in every province," Mr. Paicos said. "We are working closely with the Provincial Reconstruction Teams. They say the ambulances are needed and we can provide them. Now that some of the bugs are worked out, the process should become much easier."


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