High in a remote valley, the U.S. Army transport helicopter settled Thursday with a bump on the dry riverbed, and the earthquake survivors came running. Jostling and shoving for space, they crowded around the rear cargo hatch as the soldiers on board began tossing out tents, blankets and biscuits until they had no more to give.
As the helicopter revved its engines for takeoff, a balding man with a beard leaned across the edge of the lowered cargo ramp and, smiling his gratitude, extended his hand toward Brandon Chasteen, a 21-year-old Army medic from Chattanooga, who gave it a hearty shake. A moment later the chopper was churning toward another landing zone to pick up a load of injured.
Two weeks after the massive Oct. 8 earthquake in northeastern Pakistan, a mushrooming U.S. aid operation is doing more than just saving lives. It also is helping to improve the dismal public image of the United States in a conservative Muslim country where anti-American feeling has been aggravated in recent years by the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Television news broadcasts have been filled in recent days with images of U.S. Navy cargo ships offloading relief supplies in Karachi, olive-drab Chinook helicopters disgorging bundles of tents and blankets in isolated mountain villages, and American soldiers -- some diverted from military operations in Afghanistan -- working with their Pakistani counterparts to evacuate the injured.
Showing America’s ‘other side’
President Bush's Oct. 14 visit to the Pakistani Embassy in Washington to offer condolences for earthquake victims received wide coverage in the country's media, as did pleas by some in Congress for an increase in the $50 million in earthquake relief that the Bush administration has already pledged.
Even the conservative clergy, who have long been in the vanguard of anti-U.S. feeling in Pakistan, have grudgingly praised the U.S. response.
"Obviously, this is the other side of the United States," said Maulana Shabbir Ahmad Shujabadi, a prominent religious scholar in the port city of Karachi. "For the first time in so many years I have seen the American planes dropping relief and not bombs on the Muslim population."
It is too early to say whether the aid operation will have any lasting effect on public attitudes toward the United States in this impoverished nation of 160 million people, many of whom regard Osama bin Laden and the Taliban as heroes.
The Bush administration has close relations with Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, a key U.S. ally in the war against terrorism. But the United States elicits far less warmth among ordinary Pakistanis, many of whom are convinced that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq reflect hostility toward their faith. A survey released in June by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found 23 percent of Pakistanis had a favorable view of the United States.
Against that backdrop, the Bush administration is eager to highlight its role in aiding victims of the massive 7.6-magnitude quake, which shattered towns and villages across a vast swath of Pakistani-controlled Kashmir and adjacent parts of North-West Frontier Province. Authorities estimate that the earthquake killed 40,000 to 50,000 people in Pakistan; about 1,400 more are thought to have died in the part of Kashmir controlled by India, just across the Line of Control, the cease-fire line that separates Pakistani and Indian forces in the disputed Himalayan province.
With many survivors trapped in remote areas that will soon be blanketed in snow, U.N. officials have warned that thousands more could die if foreign governments do not contribute more to the hugely complicated relief effort.
"The United States was in at the beginning," Ryan C. Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, told reporters Thursday. He cited, among other things, the airlift of 1,200 tons of aid in the 12 days after the quake, the deployment of a military field hospital in Pakistani Kashmir and the imminent arrival of U.S. Navy Seabees who will work with Pakistani army engineers to open roads blocked by landslides.
Perhaps most important, the United States has supplied 17 helicopters, including 12 from the military and five that were already in Pakistan on counter-narcotics duty. An additional 20 choppers are en route, according to Rear Adm. Michael A. LeFever, who is heading the U.S. military relief effort.
The lumbering, twin-rotor Chinook that landed on the riverbed Thursday was part of an Army National Guard unit that draws its personnel from several Western states and is deployed in southeastern Afghanistan.
Its pilot, Chief Warrant Officer Aaron Wallace, is a father of four and a former high school teacher who works back home as a helicopter instructor at an Army training center in Reno, Nev. His co-pilot, Capt. Dan Lewis, is a state trooper who flies for the California Highway Patrol and lives in Fresno, where he has a wife and 2-year-old son.
For them and the rest of the crew -- including Chasteen and another medic, a flight engineer and another soldier who normally mans a door-mounted machine gun -- the earthquake relief mission has come as something of a respite.
Since their unit arrived in Afghanistan in March, enemy ground fire has struck more than half of its 12 choppers, one of which was downed in Zabul province several weeks ago with the loss of all five on board; another has been shot at so many times that it has been nicknamed "the lead sled," according to Lewis, 35, whose laconic state trooper's demeanor fairly screams, "Driver's license and registration, please."
"It's a nice break," Lewis said. "It was strange for us to come over from Afghanistan because we had no idea how we'd be treated. But they came out, shook our hands. They're very nice people."
A typical workday
Thursday was a typical workday for the Chinook and its crew.
Loaded with tents, blankets and a small amount of food, the chopper took off from Chaklala Air Base near Islamabad at 8:35 a.m. under blue skies, then turned east toward the forested mountains of Kashmir. As is customary on such missions, a Pakistani army pilot, Capt. Saad Ullah Khan, rode in the cockpit jump seat to help identify targets for aid deliveries and communicate with people on the ground.
Just a few minutes from the Line of Control, Wallace pushed the aircraft into a slow spiral, dipping to within a few feet of the valley floor. The crew deposited its first load next to a creek, the helicopter's powerful rotors kicking up a storm of spray as villagers scrambled through the maelstrom to retrieve the bundles. Working their way slowly up the valley, the pilots and crew made several more deliveries, exchanging constant warnings over the intercom about the power lines that laced the area.
Following the last delivery, at the riverbed, they eventually landed at a military camp, where soldiers in surgical masks were digging graves and injured men, women and children awaited evacuation. After the injured were loaded on board and the chopper took off, Chasteen and another medic crouched at the side of a 12-year-old girl, gently applying a splint to her badly broken leg.
"She'll get to keep her leg," Chasteen said later that morning, once the chopper was safely back at base. "She's one of the lucky ones."
Chasteen, stocky and blond, the oldest of seven children, said he wants to pursue bachelor's and master's degrees in international relations when he gets out of the Army next year.
But in the meantime, he said, he is glad to be in Pakistan. "At least these people aren't trying to kill us," he said. "That makes it a little easier."
Special correspondent Kamran Khan in Karachi contributed to this report.