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News | Feb. 10, 2011

JTF-Bravo, helping Central Americans wherever needed

By Capt. John T. Stamm Joint Task Force-Bravo Public Affairs

SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras - Hidden in the mountains of central Honduras, barely accessible by car or helicopter, exists the community of Montaña de la Flor, which means Flowery Mountain in Spanish.

There live a small number of descendents of an ancient tribe of people known as the Tolupan, or Jicacque, Indians, an indigenous ethnic group numbering just over 2000, many of whom still speak their native language of Tol.

A team from Joint Task Force-Bravo's Medical Element and personnel from supporting units joined forces with the Honduras Ministry of Health, the Honduran Army, the Mission Honduras LeMars (a non-governmental organization from the United States whose focus is on health care and medicine, water projects, and supplemental food programs support in remote areas of Honduras) and several volunteers from the University of South Dakota to provide basic medical services in the region from Jan. 28 - Feb. 2.

The 1-228th Aviation Regiment here provided airlift capabilities, delivering the team and supplies aboard UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters. For the first three days, the team hiked through the mountains conducting house-to-house nutritional assessments which included a survey of the family size, economic status, living conditions (including location and altitude) and typical dietary habits. Blood and hair samples were taken on children under five years of age (chosen randomly), and on nursing mothers, to identify deficiencies.

"We can detect a number of different toxins by analyzing these samples," said Col. (Dr.) Michael Hoilien, JTF-Bravo MEDEL commander. "We can also determine whether or not these deficiencies are seasonal."

After the analysis, if neccessary, the team provided vitamin supplements to the families. All the information gathered was compiled into a report for the MoH to use in improving programs to counter malnutrition.

Dr. Teresa Kemmer, Assistant Professor of Nutritional Studies at SDSU and retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, became involved in the program during its inception in 2001, when she met Dr. Julia Lynch, an Army pediatrician, at a medical conference. Dr. Lynch was familiar with Dr. Kemmer's work in refugee camps in Burma, and was also familiar with JTF-Bravo capabilities. The two coordinated with JTF-B and the MoH to establish a pediatric residency training program to teach students to identify cases of malnutrition in an impoverished country and to provide support for those most in need.

Dr. Kemmer credits JTF-Bravo, in terms of transportation, personnel and equipment, with the continued success of the program.

"JTF-Bravo is an exceptional asset," she said. "Logistically, it would be extremely difficult without their help. They (JTF-B) are essential and greatly appreciated."

During the final two days, the JTF-B team assisted in providing basic medical services through an open clinic. After initial registration, patients attended a preventative medicine class, taught by Master Sgt. Jose Pachon, MEDEL logistical technician, and representatives of the MoH, where they received soap, tooth brushes and vitamins. Medical providers then screened the patients for any ailments. If the patient required treatment, or medication, they were referred to one of the on-scene physicians and then to the pharmacy.

Dr. Miquel Coello, native Honduran and MEDEL liaison officer, served as one of those physicians.

"This was the first MEDRETE (medical readiness training exercise) we've held here, and it went much better than I expected," Dr. Coello said. "These people are shy in nature, but they were very receptive to our presence and were very open to assistance. It was the JTF-Bravo personnel, the Honduran Army, the Ministry of Health and volunteers working together that made this a success."

Capt. Tia Hutto, MEDEL clinic nurse and officer in charge, coordinated the basic health clinic. She also attributes the success of the mission to the team, the NGO and all the volunteers working together.

"Military-wise, we function differently in terms of plans and timelines," Captain Hutto said. "The volunteers had their own goals, so adding their piece to ours was a challenge. It worked because at different points different leaders were in charge. They (the MoH) received all the information they needed and we accomplished our mission of providing basic health care and supplies."

The volunteers surveyed 39 homes, covering over several miles of mountainous terrain, and assessed 68 children and their mothers. The MEDEL team taught preventative medicine to 461 patients, saw 118 in Triage, referred 343 to a Primary Care physician and dispensed 1,342 medications.

JTF-Bravo is committed to full partnerships with Central American governments in training and missions to support security, stability and prosperity throughout the region. JTF-Bravo supports regional medical readiness training exercises, humanitarian and civic assistance, disaster relief and contingency missions, and via U.S. Southern Command, will provide the equipment and capabilities to assist in times of need.