By Marcy SanchezMay 3, 2016
Located along the Organ Mountains in Southern New Mexico is White Sands Missile Range. Covering about 3,200 square miles, the isolated missile range is the largest military base in the U.S. based on total area.
It is home to many key points in our nation's defense history including the world's first atomic bomb, the birthplace of missile and space activity, and the Department of the Army's only nuclear fast-burst reactor.
The base is also home to McAfee U.S. Army Health and Dental Clinic (MUSAHC), an outlying clinic of William Beaumont Army Medical Center. The clinic serves more than 3,500 beneficiaries, active-duty Soldiers, dependents and retirees.
The 35,000 square-foot clinic provides ambulatory health services including audiology, behavioral health, dental, family practice, laboratory, pharmacy, optometry and radiology services. Although these are common services throughout most health clinics one duty sets the clinic apart from its counterparts.
"What makes us different from other clinics is our support to the sole Army nuclear reactor," said Lt. Col. Elba Villacorta, commander, MUSAHC. "We are here to respond in case of a nuclear incident."
The clinic provides medical support for more than just the U.S. Army. Because of the different services and which train on the base, the medical staff is always on call.
"Our mission is to provide patient care and support the nuclear reactor mission," said Villacorta, a native of Los Angeles. "It's important for staff to know our mission, to understand what it is we do every day."
Because of the WSMR's unique mission, Soldiers and staff at MUSAHC constantly train in accordance with Nuclear Accident or Incident Response and Assistance (NAIRA) operations standards. Two Emergency Response Teams (ERTs) at MUSAHC conduct specialized training throughout the year to provide medical support within a 15 minute window of an incident.
"The ERT is responsible for providing care to patients involved in a Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and Explosive (CBRNE) incident," said Sgt. Steven Hull, NAIRA noncommissioned officer in charge. "The clinic has a unique position in the NAIRA response because we train for the worst possible scenario."
In addition to responding to CBRNE incidents, the ERT also responds to other emergencies such as natural disasters and resource failures.
"The ERT is on call 24/7 and know their job," said Sgt. 1st Class Angel Hernandez, senior enlisted advisor, MUSAHC and native of San Juan, Puerto Rico.
"Every second counts," said Hull, 43 of Indianapolis. "As soon as our team arrives we assess the patient and make decisions on best care for that patient."
The ERT transports patients from the incident scene to MUSAHC where the team decontaminates and stabilizes casualties prior to medevac if necessary.
In a show of proficiency and professionalism, MUSAHC recently passed inspections from the Army Reactor Council (ARC), Army Testing and Evaluation Command (ATEC), and the Department of the Army Inspector General (DAIG).
According to Hull, every employee both military and civilian has a role during NAIRA exercises.
"There is no role more important than the other," said Hull. "We train as a team and respond as a team."
The clinic's small staff of 57 only consists of 19 Soldiers which magnifies the importance each Soldier has in completing the mission.
"We are only one person deep," said Villacorta. "If you don't know your job we may miss a step."
Aside from the important task of providing primary care and support for the NAIRA mission, each year the clinic provides medical support for the Bataan Memorial Death March, an annual event during the month of March stretching 26.2-miles through the desert terrain of WSMR.
This year's event welcomed almost 7,000 marchers and required more than 400 medical volunteers to augment MUSAHC during the event. Medical care was provided to 1,309 marchers this year with six ground medevacs and one air medevac.
"On that day, we almost triple everything: patients, supplies and staff," said Villacorta. "It's all in preparation but it's very unpredictable. You never know who's going to become a patient or how many patients we'll have."
According to Villacorta, the magnitude of the event requires so much medical support the clinic begins organizing eight months prior to the event.
"I think it's very rewarding for everybody," said Villacorta. "You don't see this every day and we're making a difference."
Although the remote location of MUSAHC and WSMR is not for everyone, the staff agrees the isolation allows comradeship to flourish in the dry New Mexican desert.
"We're such a great family environment. Patients understand our mission; they understand we're here to support them," said Villacorta. "I'm very proud of what the staff has done to support them."