Members of the 419th Reserve Tactical Fighter Wing from Hill Air Force Base used medical skills as weapons in a battle against sickness and disease during a recent training exercise in Honduras.
Thirty members of the wing's medical unit were sent to Palmerola Air Base in Honduras in February to provide medical support to U.S. military personnel there, but the group also found time to provide medical services to Hondurans living in remote mountain villages.Col. Donald Bryan, commander of the 419th's Hospital Squadron, said the medical maneuvers allowed the reservists local dentists, doctors, nurses and medical technicians an opportunity to get valuable field training in a conflict area.
"You can't deny that Honduras is a hot spot," he said.
The U.S. government deployed 3,200 soldiers to the country in March after Nicaraguan soldiers reportedly pursued Contras into Honduras.
The doctor said the location provided the military medical team an opportunity to practice tropical medicine, including treating malaria, tuberculosis and parasitic diseases.
"We dealt with life-threatening heat stroke, treated industrial-type injuries, coped with scorpion bites and handled a whole lot of patients, probably 300 a day per doctor," said Bryan. "Our operation was similar to a MASH (mobile army surgical hospital) unit."
He said the doctors dewormed everyone and immunized the children.
"The dentists probably pulled 500 teeth and passed out 1,000 toothbrushes," he said.
Dr. David Jahsman, a colonel, said the doctors quickly learned a few Spanish phrases, such as, "Where's the pain?" but that interpreters were usually around if communication got difficult.
Bryan said the first priority of the trip was to provide medical support to 1,000 combat engineers training in Honduras, and then backup medical support for military personnel stationed at the Palmerola base.
He said medical service for the remote villagers was secondary and provided at the request of the Honduran government.
"A helicopter was the only way to get to the villages, which had no roads leading to them," said Jahsman. He said getting up and over some of the mountainous areas in the Army's Blackhawk copters was at times "a bit hair-raising."
"We could only fly during the day because Honduras has no navigational flight instruments," said Bryan.
"The Hondurans also shoot at anything in the air after 6 p.m.," Jahsman said.
Bryan said the dirt-poor villagers, many of whom walked miles to receive treatment, were grateful. "It was a very good opportunity for us to make friends with the Hondurans at a very ground-roots level."
The orthopedic surgeon, who gives up about 18 weekends a year for his Reserve command duties at no small financial cost, expressed strong sentiments about America having a strong military capability, "as a deterrent and in case we ever need it."
Bryan said he returned home feeling the unit had gained confidence that would serve it well if it ever needed to respond to a war.
"And of course we all feel good about being able to personally be involved in helping people," he said. "It was money well spent by our government for the training and the aid, a big morale booster."
The commander said only 30 reservists of the 70 members of the 419th medical unit, which is assigned to provide medical services to the pilots and support groups of the 419th, were allowed to make the trip.