Published February 17, 2006
UZAFFARABAD, Pakistan – The U.S. Army said goodbye to its last MASH on Thursday, handing over the green tents, emergency room and surgical tables to Pakistani doctors and nurses who had never seen the hit TV show that made the field hospital a household name in America.
For the past four months, the 212th MASH — or Mobile Army Surgical Hospital — has been stationed in a mountain valley in northern Pakistan treating survivors of the Oct. 8 earthquake that killed more than 80,000 people.
The military decided to donate the MASH — worth $4.6 million — to Pakistan because the Army is switching to a new approach, called "combat support hospital." The new system is more flexible, with surgical squads that can go out into the field instead of waiting for patients to be flown in.
Surrounded by snow-covered peaks, the Army said farewell to the MASH in a brief, simple ceremony with a Pakistani army band in maroon jackets and gold-trimmed hats playing marching tunes — not "Suicide is Painless," the TV show's theme song.
"We are very proud of the MASH's service to the people of Pakistan and extremely happy the MASH will be continuing its mission in capable hands," said Army Col. Angel Lugo, MASH force commander.
Pakistan army surgeon general, Lt. Gen. Syed Afzal Ahmad, said that the local staff have been working closely with the Americans during the quake mission and were ready to take over the MASH unit, which first saw action in St. Mihiel, France, during World War I.
"We are very thankful to the U.S. government and will remain thankful forever," he said.
U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker said the MASH and other quake aid "caused tens of thousands of Pakistanis up in this area to change their view of America."
Still, "Death to the U.S." was one of the most popular chants the past week at protests across Pakistan against cartoons in the Western media lampooning the Prophet Muhammad. Crocker blamed the slogans on a "few agitators" and said it didn't reflect wide opinion.
The MASH looked much different than the ramshackle, sprawling one on the TV show. The real camp included five long, neat tents that connected with covered walkways, creating a medical maze. The camp's perimeter had medical trailers for surgery and sterilization that looked like green shipping containers.
The TV series "MASH" ran from 1972-83, tackling the delicate task of trying to make viewers laugh while showing the horrors of the Korean War. The half-hour show juggled the funny and the serious by being a "dramady" with multiple plot lines — some serious, others comic.
The quirky characters became icons in American TV culture. There was the womanizing, wise-cracking Dr. Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce, played by Alan Alda, who made his own gin from a still in his tent.
The butt of many of Hawkeye's jokes was the uptight Lt. Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan, portrayed by Loretta Swit.
At Thursday's handover ceremony, Lt. Col. Ann Sammartino said there was a big difference between the real and fictional MASH.
"I'm supposed to be the Hot Lips Houlihan because I'm the chief nurse, but not exactly," said Sammartino, of Providence, Rhode Island, who added she grew up watching the show and was a big fan.
"We're just as busy as you seen on the show," said Sammartino. "But the other stuff? No, I don't think that happens very often."
Robert Piotrowski, an emergency medical doctor from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, said no one at the MASH was making their own gin for martinis.
"No stills here. We're dry but we do have some great coffee," he said.
Piotrowski also said reruns of "MASH," now available on DVD, weren't even popular in the camp. "We'd rather watch more of the 'Sopranos' and 'Lost,'" he said.
The Pakistani doctors, nurses and technicians taking over the MASH just gave blank looks and said, "No," when asked if they've ever seen "MASH."
But Pakistani Army spokesman Maj. Farooq Nasir said he saw one episode of the show six years ago.
"It was a nice comedy," he said with a smile before becoming earnest and adding, "They didn't behave like that here. They were quite serious."