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Medical Personnel Finish N. African Humanitarian Exercise

By Capt. Chrystal Smith, USAF
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, June 9, 2006 – Thirty-three joint active duty military, civilian and reserve medical personnel returned home from the Sahara desert after taking part in African Lion 06, a medical humanitarian exercise in Morocco in late May.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Air Force Capt. J. Eric Hibbs, 4th Dental Company, Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth, Texas, maneuvers to extract a tooth from one of the hundreds of daily patients treated during the humanitarian medical exercise African Lion 2006 in Aday, Morocco, in late May. Photo by Capt. Chrystal Smith, USAF

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Doctors, nurses and technicians representing obstetrics and gynecology, optometry, dentistry, family practice, internal medicine, dermatology and pediatrics were assembled to provide medical care to citizens in the remote Moroccan region in late May.

Providers touched the lives of more than 9,400 Moroccan citizens during a seven-day exercise. The experience was life altering for many of them.

"This changed my life," said Capt. Alvin Barber, 435th Medical Squadron physician assistant. "I left a piece of my heart in Morocco. The people were the most grateful I have ever seen. You could tell that each person would give you the shirt from their back in return for the help they received."

Barber, who works in Family Practice Clinic at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, arrived in Morocco as a member of the advance team to assist the lead planner on final touches for the humanitarian mission. Throughout the mission he provided pediatric care to children.

The team saw an average of 700 to 1,300 patients per day, fitted more than 1,200 people with their own pair of adaptive eyewear, and filled nearly 20,000 prescriptions.

Many on the mission were seasoned for the task ahead, but first-timer Air Force dentist Capt. Paul Hilfer, 435th Dental Squadron, was not sure what to expect.

"I expected that I would be pulling teeth and practicing limited dentistry," he said. "What I didn't anticipate was how much I would be impacted by the humble and grateful attitudes of everyone. You can't describe the satisfaction of treating such a patient population - every little aspect of care given made a difference in their lives and you could see it in their smiles."

Daily, half of the team went out to a designated village, while the other half received people at the Guelmim Military Hospital. A different mixture of the team visited a new village everyday, in the end visiting a total of seven.

They provided medical care to citizens of the villages of Aday, Amtodi, Timoulay, Ifrane, Afrkrat, Labiar and Taghjist. The average patient load, split between the designated village site and the Guelmim hospital was about 1,300 per day.

"You could see that many of the people we saw were apprehensive at first," said Barber. "They quickly gave us the trust we needed to give them the best care we could in the given environment."

Even though the team worked long hours under the heat of the desert sun and in austere conditions, there was a reward in the cultural exchange.

Exercise African Lion is a regularly scheduled, bilateral exercise for the U.S. and Moroccan ground forces to promote improved interoperability and mutual understanding of each nation's tactics, techniques and procedures.

(Air Force Capt. Chrystal Smith is assigned to 435th Air Base Wing Public Affairs.)

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