Inspired by prayer, Virginia politician starts errant bedsheet drive for troops in Afghanistan

McClatchy Foreign StaffJune 17, 2013 

— This spring, a local political candidate in Roanoke, Va., started an appeal for bedsheets to help U.S. MASH units in Afghanistan, which had run short and been forced to put wounded troops on ripped, bloodstained linen, she said.

“Afghanistan MASH units are in GREAT NEED of sheets!” said the Facebook page created to help. “These units treat and house our military service men and women who are wounded in battle and their linens are all but gone! They are using torn, worn and blood and other bodily fluid stained sheets over and over again.”

The story struck a chord with conservative media, and soon RoxAnne Christley’s Operation Bedsheet was on Fox News and Breitbart.com. From there, it spread around the Internet, onto YouTube and blogs.

U.S. military officials in Kabul, though, say no one checked out the story with them. Not only do they have a sheet surplus, there has been no such thing as a MASH unit – mobile Army surgical hospital – for more than seven years.

After brass back in the United States read the Breitbart story and demanded to know what was going on, medical officials here scrambled to check the linen inventory at all 25 U.S. and NATO medical treatment facilities across the country, said Col. Theresa Sullivan, the chief medical adviser for U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Within hours, the word came back that all had a proper supply of clean sheets. Indeed, there were hundreds of spares stored at the six main military hospitals, ready to be pushed down to the field surgical teams if needed. And there were plenty of disposable sheets to prevent any chance of a spot shortage, she said.

“I can tell you with full confidence we do not have a shortage of clean hospital bed linen,” she said in an interview.

The Army deactivated the last MASH unit more than seven years ago. The rough equivalent now is called a Combat Support Hospital.

After the tally turned up no problems, a civilian public affairs officer working for the U.S. military in Kabul, Jeffrey Hawk, posted a note on the Facebook page for the sheet drive, which was topped by a photo from the opening of the long-running TV show “M*A*S*H.” He thanked Christley for caring about the troops and wrote that the military had trouble finding the unit and was concerned about finding any problem so that it could be fixed.

Hawk said that he traded emails with a woman who created the Facebook page and asked her to put him in touch with Christley. She indicated that Christley would not be responding to him.

Hawk said he then asked her to take the page down, because the story about the sheets seemed baseless. She quickly complied on June 9 and apologized.

Hawk said he checked with other public affairs offices across the NATO-led coalition and none had been contacted by the various media that ran the story to check its accuracy.

Christley, in a telephone interview from the United States, said the woman running the Facebook page had killed it because she felt intimidated by Hawk, not because the story wasn’t true.

Also, she said, the appeal had been designed to be a short-term one, as her friend’s husband was coming home and had merely wanted to leave the medical facility where he had worked in good condition for the unit replacing his.

The idea for the linen drive came to her, she said, shorty before her election, after she prayed for divine intervention to ease the stress of running a hard-fought campaign for the Republican primary held May 11 for a seat on the Roanoke County (Va.) Board of Supervisors which, in the end, she lost by five votes.

Members of the Roanoke Valley Republican Women’s Club, which Christley leads, helped out with donations, and more sheets were collected at a local military appreciation day and from other donors. The effort eventually netted about 150 sheets, she said, and nearly $2,000 in donations to help with shipping costs. Her efforts led to shipping out 13 boxes.

Christley said she and friends helping also packed in other items the troops could use, including dental hygiene kits and hard candy.

Some of the money remains unspent, she said, and will be used for another effort of some kind to help the troops.

Troops who have spent time on larger bases here might find it surprising if the hospitals didn’t have clean linen. Some base exchange stores in Afghanistan actually sell sheets, along with a bounty of offerings such as flat-screen televisions, bicycles, computers, running shoes, a dazzling variety of dried beef snacks, energy drinks and souvenir T-shirts and mugs. Some bases are home to coffee shops and U.S. fast food outlets and have bus systems and cardio gyms, and you can order new cars and motorcycles for delivery back home.

The mindset of the medical troops in Afghanistan is such that they would never tolerate bloody, torn sheets for patients, said Sullivan, who is herself a nurse.

“I have been deployed several times and I can tell you that all of us – the doctors, the nurses, everyone – are advocates for the patients, and if they need something for the patients, they let me know, they let the chain of command know, and they aren’t shy about it.”

Medical units here follow the same standards for things like changing sheets as military medical facilities do back in the United States, she said. They are inspected quarterly to assure they are meeting those standards.

Leaders in Afghanistan, she said, must take every such report seriously, and they did this time. “People do identify real issues and if we don’t investigate, we’re not going to be able to fix them,” she said.

The sheets went somewhere. The Fox segment shows Christley boxing some up, and it interviews a representative with a charity that she worked with to ship them.

But their destination may remain a mystery. Christley declined to name the friend’s husband who asked for sheets, his unit, or the medical facility where he experienced the shortage. The military might punish him for speaking out, she said.

“It was an Afghanistan unit and I’m not saying who or where,” she said. “It doesn’t matter who it went to, it matters that we were able to help.”

Email: jayprice@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @jayinkabul

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