Eagle Force Soldiers, Marines Brighten Orphans' Days
By Staff Sgt. Todd Oliver, USA, and Spc. Aaron Reed,
Special to American Forces Press Service
SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador, Dec. 18, 1998 The baby was no more than two months old and she was cradled on the hip of a nine-year-old girl. Both are orphans. The baby clearly needed medical attention -- nearly 80 percent of her body was covered with sores and rashes. Her plight is heart-rending, but she is luckier than some people on the other side of a 10-foot-high gate.
The St. Vincent de Paul Society Children's Home is an oasis in San Salvador's rough-and-tumble San Jacinto neighborhood. Its blue and white walls stand at the end of a winding, rutted, trash-strewn road lined with open-sided bars and the wooden stalls of a busy open-air market. Swarms of flies engulf slabs of meat that hang on hooks in the scorching mid-morning sun.
A blue El Salvadoran air force bus trundles through the gauntlet and a raucous chorus of car horns and revving engines. Its cargo: gifts of medicine and food from Joint Task Force-Aguila, based 30 miles south of town at Comalapa Air Base -- and task force members packed three to a seat and standing in the aisle.
The visitors arrived with a mission: Bring aid and comfort to the more than 450 children in the home. In addition, a medical team from the 86th Combat Support Hospital would put skills to work -- and gain valuable data.
The visit gives the Americans a chance to see what medical problems seem prevalent locally and what to expect with the children in other places, said Army Lt. Col. Lillian W. Williams, hospital deputy commander and chief nurse. Twice weekly she sends teams to areas identified by El Salvador's Ministry of Health as having been critically damaged recently by Hurricane Mitch.
"We have the specialists, so why not use them?" she said. "These people don't have a lot of other resources to fall back on."
Almost half the children in the home are orphans, some the enduring victims of El Salvador's 12-year civil war. Some were placed by social workers because of abusive parents. Some belong to families that are too poor to feed them. Others were simply abandoned -- police found one infant boy on a trash heap six months ago.
"We are here to make these children happy," said Sgt. Maj. Edgardo A. Menjivar of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 593rd Corps Support Group, Fort Lewis, Wash. In his hand, he carried a flight bag filled with clothes, medicine and other items for the children.
"It won't be enough, but it's something. It's a start. I asked the nurse here what kind of things they were missing. One of the things they need is cotton balls. That tells you how much we take for granted. I buy cotton balls to shine my boots," he said. "I can't guarantee what the conditions will be here two years from now. I can tell you that things will be better for the next 90 days, though.
The medical team examined children in the home's clean, bright infirmary and found most of the problems were relatively simple: skin disorders -- rashes and scabies -- and secondary infections that would respond readily to donated antibiotics. They also took note of cases needing follow-up attention.
"The people here seem to be on top of the problems, and they follow-up well," said Capt. Barbara Agen, a pediatric nurse practitioner. "They just need some help with the medicines."
"The kids look great," said Dr. (Capt.) Rob Atkins, the hospital unit's family practitioner. "They're very well-nourished and healthy. Obviously these children are well cared-for."
Those children seemed to care only that the Americans were there, not why. They surrounded the visitors, a cross section of Army and Marine Corps personnel deployed to the task force for hurricane relief work. Some waited as the Americans opened ration packs and passed out the contents. Others sipped bottled water, while others asked to hold hands or to be picked up. Giggles and laughter intermingled with questions asked time and again in Spanish to non-Spanish ears.
"I heard about this trip and I was dressed, waiting for the bus, five minutes later," said Sgt. Demetrius Jackson, a food service specialist in Menjivar's company and father of three. "I love kids. I just wanted to see how these kids were. I knew they didn't have that much. I just wanted to see if I could bring them a little happiness with my smile."
Cecilia Ramos, a shy 11-year-old orphan, and her friend, 13-year-old Marta Ramos (no relation), sat in the shade with Pfc. Grisel Ruiz. "We've just been chit- chatting," the Fort Lewis legal specialist said. "I've been talking about my daughter, who's 12, and we've been talking about school.
"They were pretty quiet at first," Ruiz said. "It took them a while to start opening up to me." Cecilia, she learned, wants to own a bakery someday, while Marta's not sure what she wants to do when she grows up.
"You could just see their faces light up," said Pfc. Jennifer Hernandez, a 593rd Corps Support Group administrative specialist. "All you had to do was hold their hands or give them a hug. They're little kids and they want to be loved. One little girl went on the swing with me and wouldn't let me put her down. She just wouldn't let go."
Menjivar went around trying to get an accurate head count of children and their ages. "I needed to know how many were boys and how many were girls so that we could come back here for Christmas," said the sergeant major, who grew up in San Salvador and recalls playing soccer where the orphanage now stands. "We're going to start a collection so we can purchase some toys."
"The kids were happy," Menjivar said. "You could hear it in their laughter and see it in their smiles. None of the children spoke English and most of our people can't speak Spanish, but after a while it didn't seem to be a problem. With children, you can always find a way to communicate."
[Staff Sgt. Todd Oliver is assigned to the I Corps Public Affairs Office at Fort Lewis, Wash. Spc. Aaron Reed is assigned to 100th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, Texas Army National Guard.]