SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras –
Imagine that you lived in a remote region, with limited access to medical care and no roads connecting your home to the rest of your country. Then, imagine that you had lost your sight--perhaps years ago--and now lived with little hope of getting it back.
For 25 citizens of Gracias a Dios, a remote department in eastern Honduras, they didn't have to imagine all this: they lived it.
Take Benjamin Pamistan and his daughter, Maria. After Benjamin began losing his sight three years ago, Maria and her family spent money on various treatments. When nothing worked, they grew frustrated. Yet, for Maria and her six siblings, hope arrived one day, in the form of a radio broadcast.
"One day, when they were calling on the radio that the Comfort was coming, I said, 'Thank you, Lord. Finally I found someone to help me.' They gave me hope, so my
father can get better."
The U.S.N.S. Comfort is currently deployed in support of Continuing Promise 2015. Continuing Promise is a U.S. Southern Command-sponsored deployment to conduct civil-military operations with partner nations throughout Central and South America and the Caribbean. These operations include humanitarian-civil assistance, subject matter expert exchanges, medical, dental, veterinary and engineering support and disaster response, and demonstrate the U.S.' continued support and commitment to the region.
Since deploying in April, the ship has completed mission stops in Belize, Guatemala, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Panama, El Salvador, Colombia, Dominica, the Dominican Republic and Honduras; the final mission stop will be in Port Au Prince, Haiti.
With the start of Continuing Promise in Honduras came a unique opportunity for the Pamistans and others to receive care.
A Flight to Remember
Whereas the Government of Honduras had originally hoped to bring the Comfort to Puerto Lempira, off the coast of Gracias a Dios, conditions there made it necessary to select another site: Trujillo, in the neighboring Department of Colon. Yet despite this change in plans, Honduran officials remained committed to helping the people of Gracias a Dios.
"Initially, [President Hernandez] communicated to me and the Governor of Colon the possibility that the location of the Comfort was going to be in Gracias a Dios," said Alberto Samuel Haylock, the Governor of Gracias a Dios. "And due to certain technical situations for having the Comfort near Puerto Lempira, we decided to send the Comfort here. Therefore the President agreed to support bringing the 25 patients to Trujillo, so it has been a big compromise."
With this new plan came the need for Governor Haylock and other officials to select the best patients for treatment.
"My role has been to coordinate with the Mayors of Gracias a Dios and also with the Ministry of Health of Gracias a Dios, to ensure that the physicians select the most appropriate patients for eye surgery," Haylock said.
Selecting the patients was one challenge, yet transporting them to the Comfort was quite another. Although their departments neighbor each other, Trujillo and Puerto Lempira are separated by vast stretches of uninhabited land, unconnected by roads.
The mission planners solved that challenge by drawing on the aerial transport capabilities afforded by Joint Task Force-Bravo, stationed at Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras. As U.S. Southern Command's forward-operating presence in Central America, JTF-Bravo has a long history of flying in the region and an established relationship with Honduran officials in Gracias a Dios.
Thus it was that a CH-47 "Chinook" and a HH-60 "Blackhawk" landed on the dirt runway at Puerto Lempira, Aug. 26, 2015, to an awaiting crowd of government and military officials, patients and families.
Due to limited eyesight and the possibility of surgery, all patients required an escort during their multi-day visit to Trujillo. For many, this would be their first helicopter ride. As the planes landed, Honduran and U.S. officials passed out foam earplugs and demonstrated how to use them, in preparation for the noisy flight.
Servicemembers lined the short walk to the helicopters, ready to help members reach and board their aircraft safely.
Then, once they received the appropriate hand signal, officials released the passengers in pairs, to board the helicopters--blades still turning--for a ride that would quite literally change their life.
Speaking afterward, U.S. Army Spc. Colton Young, a 1-228 Aviation Battalion HH-60 flight engineer, remarked:
"They're very thankful. The look on their faces when they're getting off the helicopter and about to get help--it makes you feel good."
Partnership on the Ground
When the patients landed in Trujillo, they were greeted by a small team of Honduran Government workers, led by Giselle Padilla, the Governor of Colon, who welcomed the passengers and provided their initial briefing. This interaction between patients and senior leadership was a theme throughout the week: Governor Haylock accompanied the patients on their flight from Gracias a Dios and remained with them in Trujillo until the conclusion of the mission, Sept. 04.
The flight from Puerto Lempira to Trujillo was one piece of a much larger operation, on shore and off, involving numerous governmental and non-governmental organizations, both U.S. and Honduran, as well as police, firefighters and churches--all working together to receive and treat thousands of patients.
Yet even as it provides humanitarian assistance, Continuing Promise also serves other ends.
U.S. Navy Lt. Eric Lewis, associate director for medical operations aboard the Comfort, said that Continuing Promise is also a large-scale logistics exercise.
"We try to see as many people as we can, and reach the capacity that the medical sites can support," Lewis said. "We work alongside our host nation counterparts to make each mission stop as efficient as possible across the board--whether it's moving supplies ashore, caring for as many patients as possible during each mission stop and conducting the initial surgical screening process to bring patients aboard the ship for their surgeries and procedures."
As Lewis noted, the combined effort of each host nation counterpart working alongside the Continuing Promise team is critical to the overall success of the mission.
"Every country we have visited during Continuing Promise is an important partner," he said. "In each country we visit, we work in close coordination with the host nation. For instance, during our time in Honduras we continue to work alongside each of our host nation counterparts, the various ministries and the local government to provide patient care, medical, dental, engineering and veterinary services to the people and animals within the region."
Given the international and bilingual nature of this mission, success depends in large part on the help of people with the linguistic and technical knowledge needed to "bridge the gap"--people like JTF-Bravo's Dr. Guillermo Saenz.
Saenz, a physician with more than 18 years' experience with JTF-Bravo's Medical Element, serves as a liaison between the Task Force and the Honduran MOH. His cross-agency coordination in the months leading up to Continuing Promise, laid the groundwork for JTF-Bravo's support to the operation. This support included the patient flights to and from Trujillo, but it also involved facilitating the patients' care while on the ground.
Together with U.S. Army Capt. John Dills, JTF-Bravo's tactical officer in charge for the Continuing Promise mission, the pair ensured that patients successfully navigated the screening process in Trujillo and received their appropriate care, whether in the form of eyeglasses or surgery on board the Comfort.
As someone who has spent his career partnering with different organizations, Saenz had this to say about the long-term value of Continuing Promise:
"In case of a Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief [scenario], the host nation can work as a team, together with the Comfort and all the entities...all of us, together, for a common goal. This is, I think, the best experience and lesson from this activity," he said.
Another crucial component of mission success was translation support--not just from English to Spanish and vice versa, but also to Misquito, the native language of many in Gracias a Dios. One such translator, named Mayra Haylock, is herself a doctor and used her knowledge of medicine to provide accurate translations for the eye patients from Gracias a Dios.
Descended from German and Misquito relatives, Mayra learned Spanish while in school and now practices general medicine at a health center an hour's boat ride from Puerto Lempira. Together with Saenz, they provided six-way translation support between the English-speaking U.S. Navy providers and the Misquito patients.
"I am happy and proud to help," Haylock said, reflecting on her first experience as a translator. "The people who were selected from among the Misquitos are the ones who really need it."
All told, the mission to bring Gracias a Dios patients to and from the Comfort lasted 10 days. During that time, 10 patients received sight-restorative surgery on board the Comfort. Those who, for medical or logistical reasons, could not, received glasses and eye drops to provide some measure of care.
One recipient of eyeglasses, Humberto Lopez, remarked on the notable difference the glasses made.
"I've been struggling with my vision for five years. Now and then, whenever possible, I was getting eyeglasses. Yet, in the last year, my vision has worsened," he said. "I drive, so driving at night was very difficult for me. Now, with these glasses, I can do more, so I am very grateful."
Dills, the mission officer in charge, interacted with the patients who received surgery aboard the Comfort and witnessed their reactions.
"An old guy was asked by one of the younger ladies if he could see. He smiled at her and said, 'I can see your beautiful face.' He was full of smiles," Dills said.
Dills shared about another encounter he had with a woman who arrived at the Comfort almost blind.
"All she could see was movement and light," he said. "Now she is taken aback by how much color she can see. She can see patterns in people's shirts. She was overwhelmed by what she can now see. This was two days after surgery."
Dills saw the mission through to its completion and emerged with a positive outlook about the role of the Honduran participants, in particular.
"There is a genuine care and concern for their people," he said. "It shows with their actions and what they're accomplishing. We're seeing lives being changed as a result."