The jet they had leased at their own expense and filled with medical supplies taxied to a stop at Kabul International Airport. On the runway, not...
WASHINGTON — The jet they had leased at their own expense and filled with medical supplies taxied to a stop at Kabul International Airport. On the runway, not 50 yards away, Vance Moss saw black smoke from the charred shell of a burning plane billowing into a blue sky.
He turned to his twin brother, Vince, who was just stirring from a nap. “Welcome to Afghanistan,” he said. Later, Vance silently said a prayer: Please let us accomplish this.
The doctors, from Prince George’s County, Md., had decided in late 2005 to go on their own to treat civilians in the war-torn country. As members of the U.S. Army Reserve, they initially sought help from the military and the State Department but found no interest. So they worked connections until they found a military officer and an Afghan doctor willing to set them up.
They secured their visas, purchased medical supplies, found a translator, hired a jet and said goodbye to family and friends.
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Two trips and hundreds of patients later, the 36-year-old doctors were honored for their humanitarian efforts Sunday at a ceremony in Atlanta. The Mosses, actors Danny Glover and Halle Berry and others were recipients of the 2008 Trumpet Awards, which recognize African-American achievement. Past honorees include Sidney Poitier, Coretta Scott King and Rosa Parks.
By the end of the month, the twins will head to Iraq with their reserve unit to treat wounded troops. In their off time, they want to treat civilians and are negotiating with the State Department for permission.
Called to duty
Army reservists since their sophomore year of college, the twins were called to active duty at stateside military hospitals in summer 2005.
As Vince, a cardiothoracic surgeon stationed at Fort Jackson, S.C., worked with soldiers who had returned from war zones, he heard their stories about the devastation wreaked on civilians. “Innocent people were being caught up, injured and were dying because basic medical care was not available to them,” he said.
Vance, a urologist, was hearing the same tales at Fort Bliss, Texas. “But the stories about what was happening in Afghanistan were worse,” he said. “The terrain and the culture were more diverse, which led to problems for civilians trying to find medical care.”
The brothers began to discuss going over to help.
“All of our lives, people have been trying to limit us, so when we decided we wanted to go to Afghanistan, we were determined to do it,” Vince said, who grew up with his brother in Upper Marlboro, Md., where a high-school counselor once told them they could never hope to be doctors.
The Army Reserve said no but did agree to provide some medical equipment.
Then, Col. Gary Davis, an Army doctor in Afghanistan, set them up with an Afghan physician who helped find the people they would need to move safely through the war-ravaged country, they said.
People were found who would be “translators, escorts, security, intelligence and even our transportation,” Vince said. “Once we had everything in place, we were ready to go.”
As the black smoke wafted over the Kabul airport, the brothers stepped off the plane to find a crowd watching them. Three of the children were missing a leg.
“From the very beginning, we knew we were needed,” Vance said.
The first day, they worked out of a hut in a remote region near the Pakistani border.
“When we arrived, we saw all of these people lined up,” Vince said. “There were dozens and dozens of them. It seemed like hundreds. They had heard we were coming and started lining up early in the morning to be treated.”
There were mothers clutching babies with pain-dulled eyes, men leaning on the arms of grandchildren. It took more than 16 hours to treat everyone in line.
The rest of their days were much the same. They operated in caves. They operated in shells of bombed-out buildings. Sometimes they were fortunate enough to work at medical facilities, but they were always dirty and never well equipped, the doctors said.
“A lot of the time, we would do surgery using cellphones and flashlights to see because there was no electricity,” Vance said. “We would go to the hospital and see boxes of medical supplies that the [U.S. government] had donated behind the hospital on the ground, unopened.”
To get the job done, they said, they often had to trade cash for hospital privileges: walk in with their patients in tow, drop $10 on a security guard here, $20 on an operating-room technician there.
Surgical instruments were often washed in a basin with soap and water. Scrubbing for surgery could mean no more than vigorously rinsing hands with bottled alcohol.
“We had to work in conditions that were worse than anything we ever imagined,” Vince said.
More than once they were forced to duck to avoid bullets.
They thought it was a greeting because everywhere they went, they heard it shouted.
“Doganagy! Doganagy!” boys and girls would call out as they chased the doctors’ convoy. Men and women would chime it, grinning, as they reached out to touch a hand or an arm.
Mothers would whisper it, through tears, as they saw their children sleeping after surgery.
The brothers said they worried about how they would be received by the people in remote areas.
As they traveled from small town to rural community, they were constantly warned about the insurgents, guerrillas hoping to make a point against the Afghan defense forces who supported the doctors’ mission and what many perceived as a U.S. occupation of their country.
The doctors tried to make the people they met feel comfortable. They wore street clothes and refused to carry weapons.
When trouble occurred, the Afghan defense forces and other volunteers moved swiftly to protect them. They dodged ambushes by changing itineraries and traveling off road. They hid the doctors in mountain caves and guarded them with semiautomatics weapons.
When the insurgents got close, their escorts cut deals with drug lords who oversaw poppy fields protected by legions of armed men.
“We would sometimes store our equipment in the poppy fields to keep it safe from the insurgents,” Vance said.
Everywhere they went, they were treated as celebrities.
“Doganagy! Doganagy! DOO-GON-UH-GEE!!!!!” the people would shout.
“We thought it was a greeting, so we said it back to some people,” Vance said.
The people laughed, as did their translators. It is the Dari word for “twin.”
Their translator described it as “same-face healers,” Vance said. “They had made a nickname for us as twin doctors: same-face healers.”
Many of the people they helped lamented that they were too poor to pay. One day, a man in tattered sandals whose head was wrapped in rags reached out a gnarled hand and gave the twins a bunch of what looked like stones.
Upon closer inspection, the doctors realized that they holding emeralds and rubies, both of which are found naturally in Afghanistan.
“We were shocked,” Vince said. “They had whole bags of precious stones. In the United States, they would have been living like rich people, but there, because of the way the economy is, they meant nothing. Unbelievable jewels and people who are too poor to even have enough food to eat.”
A second stint
They returned to the United States, but after 15 months at home decided to visit Afghanistan again.
“The State Department notified us that the people were waiting for doganagy to come back,” Vince said. “We got ready and headed back.”
The day they arrived at the Kabul airport on the second trip, they were met by a group of men who held signs and called their names. They cleared customs and headed out with the men.
Suddenly, they were shoved behind a van, bound and gagged. The medical supplies they carried, mostly gauze, bandages and small equipment, were stolen. Then they were released.
The episode left the doctors with the same hesitations they faced at the start of their first visit. Again, they decided to continue.
As they arrived at the first village, children squealed, women cried and old men grinned.
“Doganagy! Doganagy!” they chanted.
The same-face healers were back.