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Air Guard Delivers Medical Care to Guatemala

By Air Force Maj. Keith Moore
Special to American Forces Press Service

GUATEMALA CITY, Aug. 21, 2009 – About 40 medical personnel from the Arkansas Air National Guard are here performing a humanitarian medical readiness exercise as part of their annual training requirement.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Guatemalans wait for their turn to be seen by U.S. medical professionals during a 15-day medical exercise that provides medical care to people in remote areas and a training opportunity for medical airmen of the Arkansas Air National Guard. U.S. Air Force photo

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

The medical team -- made up of general physicians, pediatricians, dentists, optometrists, pharmacists, nurses and medical technicians from the 188th Fighter Wing and the 189th Airlift Wing -- are reaching out with their services while fulfilling their own training requirements as military medical professionals.

The value and need for medical services in these remote areas is reflected by the seemingly endless line that forms outside the clinic compound early each day of people waiting to be seen.

This humanitarian mission is made possible through an international cooperation agreement with the Guatemalan military and the country’s public health department. It is sponsored by U.S. Southern Command and Air Force South.

On Aug. 7, senior commanders of the Arkansas National Guard visited the site and observed the operation of the clinical services being provided by the Air Guard team. As part of the visit, the commanding generals of the Arkansas Guard sat down for an impromptu meeting and news conference with the governor of the district of Baja Vera Paz and the mayor of San Miguel Chicaj.

"The members of the Arkansas Air National Guard are privileged to be here in San Miguel Chicaj to share our work and resources to help the people of Guatemala," said Army Maj. Gen. William Wofford, the Arkansas adjutant general. "This is a great opportunity for us to partner with the artillery brigade of the Guatemalan army, which is providing us local support while we are here."

Arkansas and Guatemala are partners in the National Guard's State Partnership Program.

Gov. Angela Flavia Reyes Larios and San Miguel Chicaj Mayor Emilio Bolvito both expressed gratitude for the work the Arkansas Guard was performing for the people of Guatemala.

The Guardsmen take the work seriously, and by only the fourth day of the planned 15-day mission, the team already had treated more than 2,000 people. The common impairments include limb and joint pain and severe arthritis among the adults, while gastrointestinal and bacterial infections are the leading maladies in young children; dental hygiene issues were prevalent across all age groups.

"We have been treating a lot of things that simply add to quality of life for the people,” said Air Force Capt. Dorrie Staal, chief of immunizations at the 188th Fighter Wing's Medical Group. “The doctors are seeing adults with pain or difficulties related to long days working their crops. The kids have a variety of conditions. Some need antibiotics for infections, and others have worms or other gastrointestinal issues derived from their living conditions."

Many of the airmen noted a sense of satisfaction in having the opportunity to not only practice their medical specialty, but also the ability to do so with people who really need basic medical services.

"Things never stop in the pharmacy,” said Air Force Senior Airman Kelli Reed, a pharmacy technician with the 188th. “We have been dispensing everything from aspirin to antibiotics, anti-gastrics like Maylox and even some mild pain medications for dental patients following tooth extractions.

“But everyone has been very good,” she continued, “and they are so grateful and smiling when we give them the medications and directions for treatment."

On Day 2 in the village of San Miguel Chicaj, about 115 miles northeast of Guatemala City, the airmen worked in shifts to treat as many people as possible and keep the lines moving. By the end of the day, they had served nearly 700 people.

Air Force Master Sgt. Che Kinnard of the 188th Fighter Wing, one of the handful of bilingual members of the medical team, takes medications from the pharmacy and translates the dosing instructions and treatment guidance to the parents of children being treated by the team's pair of pediatricians. Between patients, he commented to the visiting commanders in English with a big grin, "We’re doing the Lord's work and sharing the love.”

Even in the stifling humidity of the Central American climate, the Guardsmen move with energized purpose as they go about treating as many Guatemalans as they can each day. Air Force Capt. Bridgette Scott said one delightful aspect of the mission is letting the parents know they can get treatment as well.

"The villagers hear that an American medical team is here or is coming, so they bring their children for treatment and care,” she said. “At first, they only want to get the children seen. But it is so nice when we finally convince them that we are also here to treat adults, too."

In addition to San Miguel Chicaj, the mission will take the Air Guard team to several other locations, including Rabinal, Trapiche and San Jeronimo.

"Missions like this are a ‘win–win’ situation,” said Air Force Brig. Gen. Riley Porter, commander of the Arkansas Air National Guard. “We capitalize on the training value for our team of airmen while improving the quality of life and concept of Americans for thousands of Guatemalans in the process."

(Air Force Maj. Keith Moore serves with the Arkansas National Guard.)

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