Members of the Utah Army National Guard's 144th Evacuation Hospital were preparing for activation in August because of the buildup in the Persian Gulf.
But enough time has passed that an alert notice issued to the hospital Thursday took some of its members by complete surprise."We've all felt like this was not going to occur," said Col. Earl L. Duke, an obstetrician/gynecologist from Logan who is the commander of the National Guard hospital unit.
Word from the Pentagon that the unit was being put on alert took the state's highest-ranking officers by surprise when the call came early Thursday morning.
The alert puts the 423 members of the hospital on notice that they are in line to be called to active duty to support Operation Desert Shield. There is no time limit to the alert, and it does not guarantee the unit will actually be called to active duty, said Brig. Gen. Tom Brewer, assistant adjutant general.
"Even though they're on alert, they're free to do anything," Brewer said. The alert helps the troops get ready without interfering with jobs or school, he said.
The 144th would be the largest single unit called from the Utah National Guard, if it is actually called to active duty.
Brewer said no other alerts have been issued that have not been publicly announced.
Duke said as many as 10 percent of the unit's members will be called to active duty beginning Friday to help with administrative functions needed before the unit could be ready for a call-up. And while the training schedule will not change, unit members will be asked to bring their personal gear to drill next time to make sure they have everything that is needed.
Hospital equipment the Utah personnel would use is pre-positioned in Germany and would be shipped to meet the unit if it is sent on a foreign deployment. It is also possible the unit could be sent to another state to cover for other medical personnel that were called to the Middle East.
The hospital staff includes 24 doctors and 49 nurses, most of whom hold civilian jobs in the same occupations along the Wasatch Front.
Duke said he has partners that can take over his practice while he's gone but the interruption would cost him a number of patients when he got back. The interruption to his practice could get worse if the Army Reserve's 328th General Hospital at Fort Douglas gets called up because his partner is in that unit.
The 144th's deputy commander, whose name is being withheld according to current National Guard policy, is a surgeon at LDS Hospital and said he, too, has a partner who is a member of the 328th. He said individual patients would be inconvenienced by having to make arrangements to see a different doctor, but he does not expect an activation would hurt the overall health-care system in the county.
Maj. Bob Nelson said the notice came as a surprise to state National Guard officials. And while the hospital is being put on alert, there is no indication yet how much time would pass before the unit is activated - or whether it will be activated at all.
The 144th Evacuation Hospital was activated in 1961 during the Berlin crisis and sent its hospital to the Virgin Islands earlier this year after a hospital there had been damaged by Hurricane Hugo. The hospital is capable of providing care for up to 400 patients with services ranging from dental, surgical, pharmacy and intensive care, to X-ray and laboratory.
Duke anticipated it would take several days to formally notify all of the unit's members.