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MIT safety official serves 6-month Army Reserve tour at Kosovo hospital

'It's amazing how much they hate each other'
MIT Director of Safety Programs Jerry Diaz, a  registered nurse and a master sergeant in the Army, in a Black Hawk helicopter  in Kosovo.
MIT Director of Safety Programs Jerry Diaz, a registered nurse and a master sergeant in the Army, in a Black Hawk helicopter in Kosovo.
Photo courtesy / Jerry Diaz

MIT Director of Safety Programs Jerry Diaz's home from March 26 to Oct. 3, 2001 was a 32-bed hospital in a tent near a small city on the southern tip of Kosovo called Urosevac by the Serbs and Ferizaj by the Albanians.

With Albanian and Serb patients in side-by-side beds, Diaz witnessed up close the blind hatred that consumes the country.

"It's amazing how much they hate each other," said Diaz, a registered nurse and a master sergeant in the US Army 399th Combat Support Hospital Reserve Unit in Taunton, Mass., which was activated on March 8 and shipped out to Kosovo less than three weeks later.

"They can tell whether a person is Serb or Albanian just by looking at each other," said Diaz, who carried a loaded weapon everywhere while in Kosovo, including church, the PX, the dining hall and the hospital. "I don't know how they do it." As testimony to the deep-seated hatred, he said, "we had to be careful of what civilian hospitals we discharged our locals to. Serbs or Albanians would be either mistreated or ignored if placed in the wrong hospitals."

Diaz's 124-member unit trained at Ft. Benning, Ga., and in Germany before it was sent to Kosovo via Macedonia. At their combat support hospital, part of Task Force Med Falcon, they treated American military personnel, members of the United Nations peacekeeping force, diplomats, civilian victims of the war, and wounded combatants from both sides, who often glared at each other and worse in the same ward.

Occasionally, the inbred hate was tempered by an act of kindness, renewing Diaz's belief in human compassion. He saw the father of a Serb boy comfort an 11-year-old Albanian girl who was there to have her appendix removed. The girl's mother returned the favor when the 12-year-old Serb boy needed attention a few days later.

"Through their children, they were able to overcome their hatred, at least for the moment," he recalled. "It was very refreshing."

As the hospital's chief wardmaster, Diaz supervised the training and scheduling of medical support personnel, the flow of patients and management of resources when there were mass casualties. He coordinated convoys, ambulance transfers and emergency runs, and acted as liaison for British enlisted soldiers who were hospitalized.

Along with the hospital chaplain and his assistants, he monitored US troops for signs of depression, fatigue and combat stress. He also was responsible for incoming trauma patients, scanning patients for weapons and explosives, and helping to care for the dead.

"We'd clean up the bodies to help to try to make them look a little better for their families," Diaz said. "In doing that, you develop a great appreciation for life."

There were lighter moments, many of them wrestling with the common language that divides the British and American cultures. Diaz laughed when he recalled learning to understand the British military health care personnel with whom his unit created the first multinational hospital in Kosovo.

"Hospital patient gowns are referred to as 'Johnnies' by the Americans," he said. "'Johnnies' is British slang for condoms. A 'fag' is a cigarette; they would say, 'I'm stepping outside to have a fag.' A 'brew bitch' is a person who makes tea; they would gleefully refer to themselves as today's 'brew bitch.' They avoided American tea. They considered British tea much better and they would heat the water in a 'proper teapot.'

"We all had lots of laughs and worked through our differences. It was a very rewarding part of the overall experience. Some of the Brits came to America to attend our military ball this fall."

Before departing, Diaz's unit maintained all medical services while managing a move to a new facility. The new hospital consisted of modular units constructed in Germany and SEAHUTS (South East Asia Housing Units), wooden barracks-like structures used for offices to provide dental care, physical therapy, outpatient visits, optometry, pharmacy and patient administration.

A week before they turned the hospital over to a relief unit from Fort Campbell, Ky., Diaz said, "We were afraid we wouldn't make it, as there were occasional problems getting equipment and materials through Macedonia when National Liberation Army freedom fighters got active in that country." They made it.

During his six months in Kosovo, Diaz took hundreds of snapshots of children, his compatriots, the hospital, snow at Easter, the countryside and the devastation. Other memories are etched in his mind:

Carrying a weapon at all times, including when he visited the Church of the Madonna of the Black Mountains in Letnice/Letnica, Kosovo, where Mother Teresa found her calling. Diaz, a Protestant, came away with test tubes of holy water and strips of blessed cloth which he sent to a Catholic friend in the United States who previously served a tour as an emergency room physician in Kosovo. The friend was undergoing tests for spinal cancer at the time. "Last I heard, he was doing quite well," Diaz said.

Having the primary responsibility as the only medical facility in the area for emergency treatment when President Bush, his wife, and staff visited Kosovo. "That was both exciting and stressful at the same time," Diaz said.

Visiting a Russian hospital and communicating through crude sign language with a Russian enlisted man. They bantered and posed for pictures, even though neither understood a word the other was saying. Nor did either seem to notice that the other was carrying a rifle. It was an amazing moment for Diaz, a Vietnam veteran. "I was brought up during the Cold War," he said. "We were taught to be suspicious and not to trust the Russians. Just being there was sort of surreal, to be in a Russian facility next to a Russian soldier with both of us having our weapons and actually enjoying the moment -- old enemies now on the same side. It was somewhat mind-boggling."

The shock and outrage at the terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, followed by speculation on whether the American military personnel would be ordered to return home. "We actually felt safer in Kosovo than many people did at home," he said.

Introducing himself to Major Alison M. Stamides, an MIT graduate (S.M. 1996 architecture) who is chief of the Army's European Health Facility Planning Office. "Someone mentioned I worked at MIT," he said, "and we reminisced briefly about MIT Buildings 5 and 7."

The four-day trip to Bulgaria, during which he discovered the joy of ending a meal with a fine cigar dipped in warm cognac before it was lit. "I'm not a smoker, but I loved Cuban cigars," he said. "There's no better way to unwind."

The taste of the first beer he drank in months at the Camp Able Sentry in Macedonia on Oct. 2, the first stop on the trip home. "Delicious," he said.

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