It's Not M*A*S*H, But It's Close
August 14, 2010
- Joint force medics provide support in Alaska
- Harsh conditions bring challenges
<b><i>Second in a series</i></b>
CAMP MERTARVIK, Alaska - In this remote outpost, located almost 450 air miles from Anchorage, nearly 100 soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines are laying the groundwork for a new native village.
Living conditions are rough. All electricity comes from diesel-powered generators. There's no cell phone service, Internet, or television. The team has several radios and satellite phones to communicate with personnel in the rear - and that's it.
Providing medical care in such an austere environment is no small task. In the event of serious illness or injury, a medical evacuation helicopter would have to be called from the Alaska Army National Guard base in Bethel, nearly an hour's flight away; the camp has no airstrip.
The small medical team here is led by Lt. Col. Tom Ladley, a physician assistant with the Pennsylvania Air National Guard's 193rd Special Operations Wing, located in Harrisburg. Two Navy Reserve medical corpsmen make up the rest of his staff.
"We've got a fully-equipped facility here," Ladley said. "We're able to treat anything from a mild rash to a heart attack."
The desert-tan medical tent stands in a row of identical structures. Like everything else here, the tents had to be brought in by boat, a landing craft crewed by soldiers from the 709th Transportation Company, a U.S. Army Reserve unit from Tacoma, Wash.
The tents are nailed into the tundra with extra-long stakes as protection from the winds that sometimes blow in excess of 60 miles per hour. Only a plywood sign that reads 'Medical' in stylized script - looking like a souvenir from the television series "M*A*S*H" - gives one an idea of the tent's purpose.
Inside, a portable examination table has been set up in one corner. Instruments and boxes of medication are arranged nearby, ready if needed. The tent is kept warm with quartz space heaters; everything necessary for routine issues and urgent care is close at hand.
Ladley has been at the site since early July, and said the force has had good luck so far, health-wise.
"We've had no major problems, which is surprising," he said. "There were a number of upper respiratory issues early on, because it was still wet and cold. There was still snow on the ground, too."
The ground here is constantly wet. The tundra is made up of tangled plants and mosses, and pathways of matting have been laid around the camp.
"It's like walking on a mattress," Ladley said.
Because of the wet, mosquitoes are a constant problem. Larger than those found in the lower 48 ("As big as a pea," according to Ladley), their aggressiveness is on par with their size.
"They'll suck you pale," said one soldier.
Ladley said that despite their large numbers, there are no mosquito-borne illnesses, "which is good." At each of the camp's four corners stands a propane-powered 'bug zapper.'
"When they're lit, they give off a smell that attracts the mosquitoes," Ladley said. "When the mosquitoes go to check it out, it burns them up. It's pretty neat."
Ladley said that in this harsh environment, it's critical to stay clean. The camp's water purification system can produce 1,100 gallons of fresh water an hour. The water is drawn from the Ninglick River, which runs past the camp. There are modern shower facilities set up in another tent, and hand-washing stations are dotted throughout the area.
"I stand by the hand-washing stations and make sure people wash their hands," Ladley said. "I won't take 'I'll do it later' for an answer."
Ladley said the most serious incident he's seen during his time at Camp Mertarvik was recently, when a naval reservist injured his hand with a power drill.
"We were able to treat him on site, and he returned to duty," he said.
There was no permanent damage, other than the sailor's new radio call sign: "Drillbit."
<b>Next: <a href="http://www.army.mil/-news/2010/08/14/43750-army-reserve-crew-provides-a-lifeline-in-alaska/index.html">Sailing with Palo Alto</a></b>
<i>Capt. Christopher Larsen is the public affairs officer for the 364th Expeditionary Sustainment Command, Seattle.</i>