Through Odenton and into the records, by stretcher


It is a strange procession indeed, this group of Army medics on a seemingly endless tour of Odenton and Fort Meade.

The men are carrying a stretcher with a dummy on board. An Army ambulance trails slowly. Every few minutes or so, like a volleyball team, the soldiers rotate positions.

"People stare at us," said medical specialist James Cose. "They must be saying, 'What the hell are they doing over there?' They probably think we're lunatics."

These eight members of the 85th Medical Battalion are trying to get into the Guinness Book of World Records by carrying a stretcher, weighed down with 140 pounds of sand, for 150 miles, the equivalent of going from Baltimore to Ocean City.

They started yesterday at 6:30 a.m. and are not scheduled to finish until sometime tomorrow morning.

The rules are simple. The stretcher must be in motion the entire distance: no rest periods, no pit stops.

Each group of four medics carries an hour and rides an hour. The sack of sand moves about 4 miles during a 60-minute shift.

Rotating teams is a little like handing off a baton in a relay race. The fresh troops run along side the litter-bearers and one by one, the medics slip the stretcher handles into a harness that is strapped to their shoulders and hangs to their waists.

Drop the stretcher and you go back to square one.

The quest for a Guinness record has one practical aspect: The soldiers are giving the new harness a test. But beyond that, this stunt is for the bragging rights alone.

"Would they ever have to carry a stretcher that long?" asked the battalion's commander, Lt. Col. John F. Armstrong said. "No. But they have to be in pretty good shape to be a medic."

To prevent boredom, five different routes were chosen. One winds through 8 miles of Odenton neighborhoods, another goes around the newly formed Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, an 11-mile trek. Three other routes go through and around Fort Meade.

"When we started, they said we weren't going to go up any hills," Cose said. "But when we got into Odenton, there are some hills there."

Some of the volunteers said they signed up to get back in shape and trained for eight weeks for the ordeal. Others said the stunt gives the battalion something to be remembered by.

Come September, the battalion will be disbanded. Some of its 270 members based at Fort Meade will be reassigned and others will head to Alaska or Washington. About 70 will stay in Maryland to help out at the base hospital.

But the real motivation for the record-breaking adventure may have come from Armstrong. He trained the last American team that held the record back in 1976, in Grafenwohr, Germany.

Armstrong left before his troops could set the record, which quickly was broken by a British medical group and then by members of the Canadian Army, who have had the record for more than a decade. They carried a stretcher 142.3 miles in 38 hours and 39 minutes.

There are no time limits in the competition.

The medics were confident they could set the record, though medical specialist Timothy Sloan, who served in the Persian Gulf war, said the early morning hours would be the toughest part of the journey.

"No sleep is going to be the hardest," he said, resting in the back of an ambulance during a break. "We're pretty used to muscle failure. We're going to do our best."

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