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Soto Cano Task Force Responds to Peru Earthquake

By Tech. Sgt. Sonny Cohrs
Special to American Forces Press Service

SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras, Aug. 17, 2007 – A task force composed of about 30 U.S. Army and Air Force personnel departed here today to support of relief efforts near Lima, Peru, following a devastating Aug. 15 earthquake that reportedly killed more than 500 people and left more than 1,500 injured.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
From left: Air Force Master. Sgt. Deborah Davis, Army Sgt. Patrick Dickens and Air Force Master Sgt. Dan Cockrell, pack supplies on Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras, on Aug. 16, 2007, for a Mobile Surgical Team deployment to Peru to assist with earthquake relief efforts. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Sonny Cohrs

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

The task force, composed of a Mobile Surgery Team, communications specialists and a small security detail, departed the base aboard a C-130J assigned to the Maryland Air National Guard. The aircraft was the first of two scheduled to fly relief missions from Soto Cano.

“They said, ‘an earthquake happened and we need you in Peru,’” said Air Force Tech. Sgt. Will Morales, a loadmaster assigned to Maryland Air National Guard’s 135th Airlift Squadron, based in Baltimore.

Morales and the rest of his crew were in the theater making supply runs from Puerto Rico to Honduras when their mission was diverted to support the relief effort.

Medics from Soto Cano’s Medical Element deployed with a Mobile Surgery Team capable of setting up within a few hours of arriving in Peru. The surgery team brings with it all necessary equipment and personnel to conduct up to seven surgeries back to back upon arrival.

“We can get our equipment set up in an hour and a half to two hours, and two hours after we arrive, we can see our first patient,” said Air Force Tech. Sgt. Shelby Hatch, a scrub technician deployed to Soto Cano from Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.

Air Force Maj. Paul Valdez, deployed here from Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., said the valuable training the military has provided throughout his career has prepared him for events such as this.

“We’re here so we can support our host nations with our expertise and our capabilities,” he said. “This is what I’ve trained for my whole career (and) I’m very excited to be a part of this.”

Army Lt. Col. Robert Rush, deployed from Madigan Army Medical Center on Fort Lewis, Wash., has had similar experience in Bosnia and Afghanistan, but said this will be his first disaster relief mission.

“Our team is designed to do life and limb-saving operations,” he said. “We can’t do very specialized surgeries, but we can stabilize patients so they can be treated later. This is what we’re here for.”

The task force is slated to be on the ground for approximately three days, although their stay may be extended by U.S. Southern Command. Members of the team said it’s an unfortunate situation in Peru, and they are glad to help any way they can.

“You’re not fully prepared for something like this until you’re in the middle of it,” said Army Lt. Col. Ed Zarzabal, commander of the deployed task force. “To be able to help someone in need like this is priceless.”

The Medical Element’s primary mission is to provide health service support and mobile surgical teams to U.S. Forces deployed in the U.S. Southern Command area of responsibility. As the only continuous U.S. Military Health presence in Central America, the Medical Element also provides emergency and routine medical treatment and support for all Defense Department health care beneficiaries in the area.

The medical element also supports all humanitarian and civic assistance, disaster relief, and personnel recovery missions in the region and reinforces regional international cooperation through U.S. Southern Command missions.

“As the only forward-deployed task force in Central America, we are uniquely positioned to respond to contingencies in Central and South America,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Howard Jones, Joint Task Force-Bravo deputy commander. “This earthquake was a tragedy, but Joint Task Force-Bravo is ready and willing to help with recovery efforts however we are needed.”

Soto Cano Air Base is home to Joint Task Force-Bravo, which supports U.S. interests in Central America by building regional cooperative security, developing military roles and missions, supporting the National Counterdrug Strategy, and exercising combined forces.

Soto Cano is located near the city of Comayagua, Honduras, and is co-located with the Honduran air force’s Palmerola Air Base.

(U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Sonny Cohrs is assigned to Joint Task Force-Bravo Public Affairs.)

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