SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras –
The elderly woman shuffled forward, her bare feet taking small, ginger steps as she slowly made her way down a path and into a clearing. She paused for a moment and took in the scene before her. Hundreds of people, men, women, and children of all ages were gathered around a dilapidated wooden building, patiently standing in the relentless heat of the Central American sun. The woman moved forward to join them as they stood together, waiting. Waiting for a smile, a kind word, a healing touch...waiting, patiently, for someone to care.
Each year, this scene plays out numerous times as Joint Task Force-Bravo's Medical Element (MEDEL) partners with the Honduran Ministry of Health and the Honduran military to provide basic medical care to some of the most isolated areas of the country. During these operations, known as Medical Readiness Training Exercises (MEDRETES), Joint Task Force-Bravo personnel transport medical supplies, equipment, and personnel to a location selected by the Ministry of Health, where Joint Task Force-Bravo and Honduran medical professionals provide care to people who, more often than not, have never received professional medical care in their lives.
"These people typically don't have any medical care--none whatsoever," said U.S. Army Capt. Vicki English, a member of MEDEL and a veteran of several MEDRETES. "For many of them, it's the first time they've ever seen any sort of medical person. Growing up in the U.S., we often take things like health care for granted. These operations truly give you a perspective on what the rest of the world is going through."
During a typical MEDRETE, the doctors, dentists, and medical professionals see upward of 1,000 patients over a two-day span and treat a wide array of illnesses.
"Diseases and conditions are a reflection of the living conditions," said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Huy Luu, Joint Task Force-Bravo Command Surgeon and MEDEL Commander. "We see conditions such as poor hygiene, diarrheal, respiratory, dental, skin, nutritional, and chronic non-healing infections in addition to chronic illnesses such as hypertension or diabetes."
Each MEDRETE presents its own unique set of challenges, not the least of which is setting up a functioning medical clinic in an extremely austere environment. Luu said the sense of the mission and camaraderie help to overcome any difficulty the team may face.
"There is an overwhelming sense of accomplishment when we bring an entire team of MEDEL, Joint Security Forces, Honduran military, Honduran Ministry of Health and Honduran volunteers together to care for a population," said Luu. "Everyone works together, and the energy level is unbelievable. People work in harsh conditions--there's no lighting, no air conditioning, no clean toilets, it's hot and humid--and they never complain. Often, they will work the entire day without taking breaks or stopping to eat."
Throughout the MEDRETE, Honduran and U.S. health care professionals conduct classes for the patients to teach them about hygiene, nutrition, and preventative dental practices. They also provide wellness checkups, medication, dental care, and perform minor medical procedures as required. In these distant regions, access to even this basic health care is a rarity.
"The villages are very far apart from each other, and the medical facilities are so far from the villages," said Dr. Yuki Pravia Navas, a Honduran doctor of general medicine, during a recent MEDRETE in the village of Tipimuna in the Department of Gracias a Dios. "There is so much medical need in this region, and many times the only way these people can get to medical care is to swim through creeks or walk through muddy swamps."
For that reason, it's not uncommon for people to trek several miles, walking for hours along dirt roads or trails, simply to receive much needed care.
"We have people who walk more than ten miles to get here," said English. "They will start walking early in the morning, and they will arrive at the care site in the afternoon."
Even after a long, arduous journey, those who participate in the MEDRETES say they can see the gratitude of the patients despite the language barrier.
"There is a very real appreciation for the little that we can offer," said Luu. "Even if we are not able to address a chronic problem, the patients are appreciative that we care enough to show up, to listen, and to provide advice. Sometimes it's in a smile, sometimes in a warm look in their eyes--that type of feedback is all we need to know we have made a difference."
In the last four months, Joint Task Force-Bravo has partnered with the Honduran Ministry of Health to treat more than 5,000 Honduran citizens through MEDRETES. Recently, Julie Schechter Torres, Deputy Chief of Mission, U.S. Embassy Tegucigalpa, visited a MEDRETE site in Gracias a Dios and observed Joint Task Force-Bravo and Honduran health care providers in action.
"In this region of Honduras, there is almost no access by road. These people rarely if ever receive medical care. There is one doctor in this area for more than 7,000 people," said Schechter Torres. "Through the tremendous partnership between the United States and Honduras, we are able to work together to provide care for these people. This type of outreach from Joint Task Force-Bravo helps to build on the human relationship between the U.S. and Honduras. When someone who has never received medical care before is treated by someone from Joint Task Force-Bravo, and they see that American flag on the uniform, that is a lasting memory and it strengthens the relationship between our countries."
Local Honduran officials expressed their own appreciation for the humanitarian work of Joint Task Force-Bravo.
"All the people are very happy," said Marilyn Bentlez, Vice-Mayor of the city of Puerto Lempira, during a recent MEDRETE in the village of Auka. "Medical attention is so far from this area. We are all so grateful to have you here helping."
U.S. Army Col. Thomas Boccardi, Joint Task Force-Bravo Commander, said providing critical humanitarian assistance to those in need is a key element of the Task Force mission.
"You go out and you see those who are less fortunate, and it truly moves you," said Boccardi. "You realize they aren't even privy to basic things. They've never seen a dentist or a doctor. The children have no shoes, and in some cases, they even lack a smile. They walk for miles together as families, sometimes carrying those who are sick, simply to get some basic medical care. We owe it to these places in the world that don't have these things. Anytime, anywhere there is a call for that, it is a noble calling."