GAROUA, Cameroon - As the sun begins to peak over the horizon, the ten-person U.S. Army medical team from the 212th Combat Support Hospital boards a C-130 aircraft at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, making their way through the thick morning fog mostly in silence. A few members have already been to countries on the African continent, but for most this is their first real Army mission and first time going to Africa.
"I'm nervous. A new place, new people, something different, it always gives me a bit of anxiety," said Spc. Kess Houck, an operating room technician assigned to the 212th CSH, taking in her surroundings right after touching down at the military airstrip in Garoua, Cameroon, Aug. 5, 2017. The team is supporting U.S. Army Africa-led Medical Readiness Training Exercise 17-5 held at the Military Hospital of Garoua. This exercise is the fifth and final MEDRETE in the 2017 series.
Unlike the previous 2017 MEDRETEs USARAF facilitated on the African continent, this one allows the team to live on an established contingency location and work in northern Cameroon, outside of the partnered country's capital. Lodging on CL Garoua places the Soldiers in a field setting and simulates a deployed environment. For the team, which is part of the 30th Medical Brigade, field life is familiar.
"We spend a lot of time in the field, working as a unit and setting up a combat support hospital that is able to perform surgeries in no more than 72 hours," said Capt. Charmayne Pope, an operations officer for MEDRETE 17-5 and a company commander for the 212th CSH. "That's the mission of a CSH. We are a tailorable rapidly deployable surgical treatment facility with inpatient capacity."
Landing on an airstrip, the group took in the difference in terrain and temperature. Escorted off the flightline by members of the local U.S. task force and transported to a green tent with six cots lining each side, each member of the team methodically chose personal spaces for the next two weeks. Slowly unpacking and assessing how to make the tight quarters more functional, some string up 550 cord, a versatile 7-strand nylon paracord, while others put up 'privacy walls' to accommodate the coed living conditions.
While setting up their lodging is a familiar task for members of this unit, they were not required to set up their own facility in an austere environment. This exercise enabled them to work at a partnered nation's already established alternatively-resourced medical facility shoulder to shoulder with their counterparts.
The U.S. group, ranging in age, gender, and professional skill level, is equipped with a full surgical and emergency medical team supported by an administrative couple. The experienced balanced the neophytes and added to the training available to the team. Each junior professional paired up with varying senior team members throughout the exercise and the twosome then partnered with Cameroonian medical staff.
Skilled, but less experienced team members were deliberately chosen to participate because of their potential to positively influence the future of their career field, Pope said.
"We invested in the Army's future. We chose certain people to allow them to continue growing in their field," she said.
Being the first MEDRETE USARAF has facilitated in this region, the team concentrated on establishing professional and personal relationships with their Cameroonian counterparts in order to set the stage for future collaborations. Throughout the two-week exercise the team rotated personnel through the different areas of the hospital: emergency room, operating room, patient wards and clinics to offer them a deeper understanding of the processes in place and an opportunity to interact with all the Cameroonian army medical staff.
The MEDRETE team's junior medic was able to observe a routine surgery the U.S. surgical team and their Cameroonian counterparts performed together. The young Soldier entered the operating room wearing borrowed green scrubs and watched as the surgeons and OR technicians worked together.
Pfc. Jason Macha said, "It was my first time in an actual operating room. Watching our team members partner with the Cameroonian staff was very interesting to watch. I didn't realize how tedious surgery was and it was an opportunity I was glad to have."
More seasoned members of the team also witnessed things they haven't before. Emergency room physician Maj. Warren Johnson, who is ten years into his career, saw two separate pathologies that he hasn't witnessed before: bilateral kidney stones severe enough to cause renal obstruction and gestational transfer of malaria.
"A mission like this opens eyes," Pope said. "It exposes my medical personnel to different environments, allowing them to see treatment of patients with different techniques, with less equipment, and challenges them to provide the same level of care with less."
The gained knowledge of different treatment processes and exposure to an alternatively-resourced environment benefits the American Soldiers in their individual medical capacities.
Capt. Matthew Veith, a critical care nurse said, "(The MEDRETE) has offered our team the chance to gain knowledge on how our allies and partners do business. There are some obvious differences and some obvious challenges ... I was honored to be a part of this mission and working with their team only strengthens the Army medical capabilities and readiness in the future."