Soldiers of Mercy

Veterans of too many wars, a group of gung-ho relief workers revisits the scenes of forgotten conflicts -- with healing in mind.

John Peters figured out long ago that the refugee relief business has more than its share of oddballs. It was 25 years ago, in fact--after the physician had joined in a series of medical relief missions that involved parachute jumps into Peru, Nicaragua, Honduras and Bangladesh in the wake of natural disasters. The experience threw him together with a tatterdemalion crew of shady adventurers and backwoods healers, wide-eyed holy rollers and salty combat veterans, including one ex-Green Beret named Robert K. Brown.

"Those were some pretty strange people we were jumping with," Peters recalls. "Real cowboys, people who were just in it for the glory rather than qualified medical people. Brown and I and some others decided that we should form our own group and have some more control."

Brown and Peters first met during a relief operation in Peru following a 1970 earthquake. At the time, Peters was a general practitioner on Colorado's Western Slope with no military experience but with a passion for skydiving; Brown was a Vietnam vet with vague ambitions to get into publishing. By the mid-1970s Brown had launched a controversial new magazine in Boulder, and Peters had become the medical director of Refugee Relief International, a nonprofit closely aligned with Brown's venture in spirit and deed.

Compared to conventional relief organizations such as the Red Cross, RRI may seem like an even stranger group than the parachute teams Peters joined in the early 1970s. The all-volunteer effort includes not only doctors and paramedics but several ex-military types eager to return as impartial angels of mercy to war-ravaged areas where they once played a highly partisan role. For the most part, the group's funding has come from the pockets of its participants and from the readers of Brown's magazine--Soldier of Fortune, the brash, blood-and-guts "Journal of Professional Adventurers" known for its vivid firsthand reporting from the world's trouble spots.

The relationship with Soldier of Fortune has been both a help and a hindrance to Peters's group over the years. RRI has been able to draw on the close ties that SOF enjoys with military officials in several Latin American countries in order to gain access to areas where other relief organizations don't care or don't dare to go. Despite its modest size and budget (now around $40,000 a year, excluding the medical supplies and transportation donated by drug companies, airlines and others), the group has also been able to mount several ambitious forays into civil-war zones in Southeast Asia that might be too daunting for larger, more bureaucratic organizations.

"People ask us to come to areas where, for reasons of security or remoteness or because the locals are Indians and nobody cares, they get no help," Peters says. "A lot of the guys pay their own way; we usually end up paying about half of it ourselves."

In recent years, Peters and his colleagues have brought equipment and medical supplies to a hospital on Nicaragua's Mosquito Coast, a place so isolated and neglected that local doctors were compelled to reuse disposable gloves and syringes and make diagnoses without benefit of a microscope, much less an EKG machine. They have instructed native surgeons how to perform emergency amputations on Karen tribesmen injured by ancient land mines in the Burmese jungle. They've tracked famine in Afghanistan and advised Guatemala on its rural health program. Nobody gets paid, and all donations are earmarked for the actual expenses of the operation, Peters says.

But the SOF connection has always made RRI suspect in liberal circles, particularly during the magazine's early days, when its mercenary-for-hire ads and swaggering support of right-wing regimes attracted widespread criticism and Justice Department investigations. In the Reagan years, at the height of the civil war in El Salvador and the Contra campaign in Nicaragua, SOF's "action journalists" walked a thin line between reporting on the conflicts and actively training and assisting the anti-communist forces in both countries. RRI's efforts to deliver medical supplies and treatment in the region were soon regarded as a kind of front for further military assistance, a perception of the organization that persists to this day.

"There are still some people turned off by the Soldier of Fortune name," notes Ralph Edens, a longtime contributor to the magazine and RRI member. "It can be counterproductive. Back in the 1980s, there was a significant portion of the left that regarded any support for the Contras, regardless of what it was, as military. I don't care who went down with us and saw the two or three thousand people we treated--they were still thinking that we were up to something."

Peters says the group's members have "decided to completely divorce ourselves from the military connotation" of Brown's operation. Brown hasn't been directly involved in RRI for years, he insists. (Brown didn't respond to a request for comment.) A sister organization, Parachute Medical Rescue Service, has been phased out so as not to confuse potential donors with images of paratroopers wearing camouflage. Further restructuring of the group's management is in the works, Peters adds.

It's unlikely that RRI will ever completely shed its maverick reputation, particularly since several of its key participants tend to be the sort of well-traveled adventurers featured in Brown's magazine. Edens, for example, is an ex-military entrepreneur who was active with anti-Castro groups in Florida in the early 1960s. Although he didn't participate in the abortive attempts to overthrow the Cuban leader, he was later convicted of violating the Neutrality Act after bombing the palace of Haitian dictator "Papa Doc" Duvalier in 1969. There's a picture of him in a 1983 issue of Soldier of Fortune crouching over the bodies of two Salvadoran rebels who were gunned down by government troops Edens had accompanied in the field that day.

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