Keith Hutchison, an Army water-purification specialist operating mainly in Third World countries, is hardened to scenes of disease and death. But, he confessed, nothing can prepare him for what he expects to face soon in packed Rwandan refugee camps in Zaire.
On Sunday, just days after he returned from a 10-day mission in South Korea, a call came to his home in Panama asking him to prepare for a six-month stint helping to overcome sickness and death brought on by civil war in Rwanda.
By 2 a.m. yesterday, he had arrived at Aberdeen Proving Ground northeast of Baltimore, which this week began preparing Army support personnel to aid in the growing relief effort.
By yesterday, the base had prepared 26 people, mainly Army civilian employees such as Mr. Hutchison, who specialize in operating and maintaining support equipment needed in the effort. Officials expect up to 400 people to pass through the Army Materiel Command processing center in the coming days.
More than 50 proving ground workers are giving physical examinations, helping to prepare wills and other paperwork, issuing military clothing and other supplies, and arranging transportation.
The proving ground played similar mobilization roles during the Persian Gulf war, when more than 3,000 civilians and military personnel were prepared, and during the humanitarian mission in Somalia, when more than 400 people were processed.
Mr. Hutchison, 36, left his wife, Olga, and his new baby behind. His wife had prepared a small photo album for him of pictures of his son. He carried it in a small, camouflaged knapsack.
"I've got a 2-month-old son," he said in a hallway at Kirk Army Health Clinic, as he waited for inoculations.
"He's got it real good. They don't," he said of the bone-thin children with desperate stares in the camps in Zaire.
"Living and working in Third World countries, you see this sort of thing all the time," said Mr. Hutchison, a veteran of relief efforts after floods, earthquakes and other disasters. "There's no way to prepare for the magnitude" of the Rwanda crisis. "It's good to be able to help people who really can't help themselves."
Mr. Hutchison's expert knowledge of Army mobile water purification systems that use reverse osmosis is sorely needed in the Rwandan relief effort.
So far, relief workers are struggling to provide water and food, and to control cholera, among the 1.2 million refugees.
Mr. Hutchison expected to board a civilian flight to Germany at Baltimore-Washington International Airport last night. He expects to go to the border town of Goma in Zaire.
David Dietz, 50, a civilian employee at Tobyhanna Army Depot in northeastern Pennsylvania, expressed frustration at the pace of the relief effort.
"I don't know why our government waited so long to help these people," he said yesterday during a break at the Kirk clinic.
Mr. Dietz and Roberry Carter, 37, another Tobyhanna employee, expect to be deployed to the port city of Mombasa, Kenya. Both will help deliver and maintain diesel generators that are needed to operate water purification units.
They know they will be supporting the relief effort from Mombasa and perhaps elsewhere for at least 45 days. Both volunteered for the duty.
"How do you sit there and watch these kids near death?" Mr. Carter said. "If I can put my hand in, maybe it will help. I'm just one piece of the puzzle."