NEWS | Jan. 2, 2008

Civil Military Operations delivers hand-crank wheelchairs to Miskito Coast

By Tech. Sgt. Sonny Cohrs Joint Task Force-Bravo Public Affairs

A Civil Military Operations team from Joint Task Force-Bravo delivered 100 donated wheelchairs to disabled villagers here Dec. 28.

The wheelchairs were donated to isolated villages along the Miskito Coast of Honduras. The Alabama non-profit organization Missions Unlimited contacted the U.S. Agency for International Development to coordinate the donation.

Missions Unlimited transported the wheel chairs to Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., and from there the cargo was flown to Charleston AFB, S.C. From South Carolina, the cargo was flown to Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras, aboard a U.S. Air Force aircraft under the Denton Amendment program.

According to USAID, the Denton Program allows private U.S. citizens and organizations to use space available on U.S. military cargo planes to transport humanitarian goods, such as clothing, food, medical and educational supplies, and agricultural equipment and vehicles, to countries in need. In fiscal 2006, 576,000 pounds of humanitarian goods were sent to 12 different countries through the Denton program.

"This organization in the states went through USAID and said they'd like to donate some wheelchairs to the people on the Miskito Coast," said Army Staff Sgt. Richard Blanton, the Civil Military Operations NCO who began the coordination efforts before his deployment to Honduras ended in November.

For Army Sgt. 1st Class Julio Reyes, the new CMO representative, this was his first role in a civil-military operation. His coordination and planning brought these first 100 of 460 wheelchairs to the area, and he is currently planning to deliver the remaining chairs directly to the remote villages in need.

"We're pretty much the link up between the military and the missionaries to make sure they get where they need to be," Sergeant Reyes said. "These wheelchairs are for some lobster fishermen who lost the use of their legs. And it's important (for us) to show we're here to support them since we're guests in their country."

Using two U.S. Army CH-47 Chinook helicopters to transport the wheelchairs was a lot easier and quicker than the alternatives, according to the sergeant. Assuming the missionaries had trucks that could handle the heavy load on poorly maintained, rural roads, it would be a six-plus hour drive from Soto Cano.

Ken Key, chief executive officer for Missions Unlimited, said he is appreciative of the military's support for this program. The hand-cranked wheelchairs are built specifically for people who have lost the use of their legs for one reason or another - be it polio, land mines in war-torn parts of the world, or, in this case, complications from diving along the Miskito Coast. Many lobster fishermen along the Miskito Coast have lost the use of their legs from the effects of decompression sickness while diving for their catch.

"We have a factory operation that manufactures the wheel chairs," said Mr. Key. "They're all built by volunteers, and it costs about $250 per chair. We have connections all over the world, and a lot of volunteers build them. It's a lot of people doing a little bit at a time."

The hand-crank wheel chair program has been dubbed "the gift of mobility" by Mr. Key, who says all of the programs volunteers are akin to honeybees -- "They all work together to make a sweet product," he said.