GOLETA — While the Pentagon was planning the war against Iraq, a small group of medical relief planners here was preparing for its aftermath.
In the last month alone, those planners have shipped more than $5.5 million in medical aid to Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. And the staff of Direct Relief International, the largest private international relief organization in California, is just getting started.
Most of the relief sent so far has been medicine for the mentally ill and much more will be needed, officials say. But Direct Relief also is sending everything from hospital examination tables to thousands of dental kits for children never exposed to dental hygiene.
Iraq is only the latest disaster prompting the nationally recognized Santa Barbara County relief agency into action over its 55-year history. But never before did agency planners have so much time to prepare. The planning started in November.
Thomas Tighe, chief of operations for the Peace Corps before becoming Direct Relief's president three years ago, said the needs were clearly overwhelming, but aid groups had to wait until most of the combat ended.
"The trick in these things is finding the right person on the other end," he said. "We had to find someone we could trust to actually get the supplies to the right people."
In Iraq, one of those people was Wasseem Kabbara, head of another charitable group in Boston called the Freedom and Peace Trust. He had called Direct Relief in May with horror stories of thousands of schizophrenics and other severely mentally ill Iraqis lacking any care.
"They have a national reputation as a group to go to for medical supplies," Kabbara said. "My only worry was whether they would have much in the way of psychiatric medicines. Iraq is a country with only 19 psychiatrists. Saddam Hussein wasn't a big supporter of mental health care."
Direct Relief's response was quick. Medications were shipped to Kuwait, picked up by Kabbara and hand-delivered by him to hospitals in Baghdad, Nasiriah and Basra. Meanwhile, more aid is planned.
"A huge problem there is post-traumatic stress syndrome," Tighe said. "You can pretty much figure that virtually the whole country is suffering from it."
In a typical year, Direct Relief operates on $2 million to $3 million in donations. Last year it provided $67 million in medical aid to 57 countries.
Its full-time staff numbers 21, but there are 400 volunteers. Its 36,000-square-foot warehouse is packed to the rafters with containers of medical supplies.
Before Iraq, Direct Relief had sent more than $5 million in aid to Afghanistan. Much of that relief was in the form of medical supplies for children and women, neglected under Taliban rule.
"Johnson & Johnson has been one of our biggest supporters over the years," Tighe said. "In the case of Afghanistan it turned out that they had a production plant in Karachi. They gave us a $10-million line of credit, and we were able to truck supplies through the Khyber Pass without any serious trouble."
Direct Relief is part of a national coalition of about 160 international relief groups called Interaction based in Washington, D.C., Tighe said. During the last two years of intense U.S. military action overseas, he said, the groups have carefully coordinated their activities to avoid overlap.
But natural disasters and basic medical needs of many poor countries continue to take up far more of Direct Relief's resources every year, he added. Iraq and Afghanistan combined may have drawn just a little more than 10% of the aid the nonprofit organization has distributed in the last two years.
"We've given at least as much to India in the wake of the earthquake there in 2001," Tighe said. "It displaced a million people."
Direct Relief also distributes almost $2 million in medical supplies to needy groups in Santa Barbara County and millions more to needy groups around the United States. For now, however, Iraq remains one of the organization's top priorities.
The first shipment of medications by Direct Relief was sent July 11 and a second followed a week later -- thousands of tablets of drugs to treat schizophrenia, depression, anxiety and seizures, such as Risperdal, Paxil and phenytoin. Another large shipment will go out this month.
He will keep returning to Iraq to distribute the medications sent by Direct Relief, Kabbara said.
Meanwhile, Direct Relief also is working with the U.S. Marines to set up a permanent national dental-care program and preparing future shipments to Iraqi hospitals of supplies ranging from surgical instruments to stethoscopes.
"Iraq is not a primitive country," Tighe said. "It has an infrastructure. And as it rebuilds, it will be easier and easier to send whatever help we can."