Airmen of the 59th Medical Wing, based out of Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland Air Force Base, in San Antonio, were in the municipality of Veraguas, Panama, for the start of the Beyond the Horizon medical readiness training exercise (MEDRETE), April 16.
BTH 2013 is a U.S. Army South exercise deploying military engineers and medical professionals to Panama for training, while providing services to rural communities. Conducted annually, these missions are part of U.S. Southern Command's (SOUTHCOM) humanitarian and civic assistance program.
The MEDRETE is an 11-day exercise occurring in Cerro De Plata, Los Valles and Calobre. It focuses on key medical issues in the area to include children's health, nutrition education, basic dental services, hypertension and eye surgery to the people of Veraguas and the surrounding areas.
"Our goal is to continue to forge that operating team success between the Air Force and Army," said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Randy Ivall, who is serving as the officer in charge of this Panama MEDRETE, "Ultimately at the end of the day, this also prepares us for future missions as well."
Day one of the MEDRETE started slower than expected with approximately 350 citizens showing up. Day two began with a long line formed at the entrance. Due to the first site being much smaller than the others, the projected total for this particular site is only 1,200-1,500 people.
"We're expecting about 8,000 patients total by the end of the exercise," said Ivall, "Between the soldiers and airmen, we'll get it done."
All of this was made possible by a joint effort of U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army, the Panamanian Ministry of Health and the Panamanian security forces.
Issues such as medication and supplies arriving on time, as well as the language barrier have been a small challenge for the group.
"Our job is to see and take care of as many people as we can," said Master Sgt. Rhonda Bradley, who is in Panama on her second BTH mission, "Although crowd control and language barriers exist, we're still able to make it work."
The exercise is a combination of airmen and soldiers experiencing their first BTH as well as those returning for a second and third time.
"It's been great so far," said Maj. Larissa Weir, an OBGYN here on her first BTH mission. "We converted a school into a temporary clinic, so we are now able to take care of the citizens. I'm really enjoying it."
"The most rewarding experience is the appreciation shown by the citizens," said Cpt. Karla Dennard, an OBGYN here on her second BTH mission, "My hope is to be able to promote education and self-care in these young females."
After the three-day MEDRETE in Cerro De Plata is completed, another will take place in neighboring Los Valles for another three days and finally completing the last location at Calobre in five days.
"Numbers are important, but they can't tell the entire story," said Ivall, "That cultural exchange that makes us better officers and NCOs [noncommissioned officers] to mentor others is invaluable."