NEWS | March 25, 2010

U.S. military, Costa Rican medical team provides care in mountaintop village

By 1st Lt. Jen Richard Joint Task Force-Bravo Public Affairs

Jose Luis Morales-Moya recognized the chop-chop-chop of U.S. military helicopters approaching, saw the red crosses on the medical helicopters' sides and immediately gathered his family to begin the hike here to where the helicopters landed.

Morales-Moya and hundreds of others trekked to Piedra Meza March 24-26 to attend a medical clinic conducted by 15 Joint Task Force-Bravo Medical Element personnel, in cooperation with Costa Rican healthcare providers, the Costa Rican police and members of the U.S. Military Group in Costa Rica.

A total of 253 patients received care during the two-and-a-half-day medical civic assistance program, or MEDCAP.

During the MEDCAP, all patients received preventive medicine information and visited triage to determine the required level of care. From triage, patients could see doctors, a dentist or an optometrist and then receive medication if necessary.

Piedra Meza, located on a steep, isolated mountaintop, is unreachable by roads and is about a 6-day hike from Limon, the nearest city. The Cabecar people, indigenous residents of the region, do not receive medical care very often.

"We usually get visits from medical providers about four times a year," said Morales-Moya.

Because of the site's remoteness, the JTF-Bravo helicopters were critical to the medical clinic's success. Three helicopters (one CH-47 Chinook and two HH-60 Blackhawks) from the 228th Aviation Regiment provided the ability to carry people and supplies to the mountainside village.

"It would have been impossible to come to this area without the helicopters," said Army Capt. Kennon Etheridge, Medical Element mission executive officer. "If we didn't have the 228th Aviation Regiment's support, we wouldn't have been able to get all the people and equipment here."

The mission was a challenge for the helicopter pilots and crews, but one they were happy to be a part of.

"It takes extra effort to plan how to get into this mountainous of a region, and the pilot has to have the skills to maneuver into the site," said Army Capt. Joseph Alexander, Blackhawk pilot and air mission commander. "Everybody wants to participate in this kind of mission, though. It's our opportunity to give back."

JTF-Bravo's Medical Element personnel successfully accomplished their mission to provide medical care here, in an area of the world few non-indigenous people will ever get to see.

"I have never seen anything like this. It [Piedra Meza] is so beautiful and peaceful," said Captain Etheridge. "We were able to provide medical care to the local people and also come together as a team of U.S. military and partner nation healthcare providers. It was an amazing experience."

MEDCAPs like the one held in Piedra Meza serve the broader purpose of fostering a spirit of cooperation and goodwill between U.S. and partner nation counterparts.

"We try to hold at least two or three MEDCAPs or MEDRETEs [medical readiness and training exercises] each year," said U.S. Coast Guard Commander Russ Bowen, Commander of the U.S. Military Group in Costa Rica. "These types of humanitarian efforts have improved Costa Ricans' perceptions of the U.S. and the U.S. military."

Here in Piedra Meza, those most impacted by the MEDCAP seemed to be the residents themselves, who had the experience of receiving high-quality medical treatment from a team of U.S. military and Costa Rican personnel.

"I came here with a headache and a stomachache, and now I have medicine to feel better," said Morales-Moya. "This is a good medical clinic."