By Staff Sgt. Austin M. May, USAFDecember 27, 2007
PIEDRA MESA, Costa Rica (Army News Service, Dec. 27, 2007) - For the first time in more than three years, U.S. servicemembers from Joint Task Force-Bravo deployed to Costa Rica for a Medical Readiness Training Exercise Dec. 17.
More than 600 patients were seen during the two-day exercise, with five patients critical enough to require air evacuation to the city of Limon, a 15-minute flight that would have taken days to hike through the mountainous terrain. The 1st Battallion-228th Aviation Regiment transported a girl diagnosed with cerebral palsy and pneumonia, which was the most critical case seen by the team.
"They brought this little girl here, immediately diagnosed her with a serious illness, potentially fatal, and a Black Hawk was able to airlift her to Limon," said Mark Langdale, U.S. Ambassador to Costa Rica, who visited Piedra Mesa during the first day of the exercise. "So just by being here today we may have saved that girl's life."
The team, made up of 28 Soldiers and Airmen from Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras, spent two days in the village of Piedra Mesa operating a makeshift clinic for the people in the area.
Dr. Miguel Coello, a Honduran medical liaison officer with JTF-Bravo's medical element, said the majority of patients seen by the team had upper-respiratory infections, dermatological issues, diarrhea and pneumonia. A small group had parasitic infections which were treated by the Costa Rican Ministry of Health personnel present at the site.
"We were invited here by the Costa Rican Ministry of Health to help the isolated people of this country," said Air Force Master Sgt. Troy Himes, the noncommissioned officer in charge of medical operations at MEDEL. "It's a phenomenal feeling to be able to provide true humanitarian assistance to people who really need it."
The various divisions of the clinic included preventive medicine, nurse triage, a pharmacy and health-care providers, Master Sgt. Himes, who is deployed to Honduras from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, said. He added reports indicated several families had hiked for more than a week to reach the MEDRETE site despite heavy rainfall and flooding in the area.
Ambassador Langdale said the mission has been several years in the making, but worth the effort. The reaction has been 100 percent positive, he explained, although the Costa Ricans are not used to seeing a military presence in their country since they abolished their own in 1948. The ambassador said the country has been "unplugged" to what the U.S. has been doing in the Southern Command area of responsibility, which includes Central America.
"We're kind of moving forward in re-establishing these relationships," he explained. "It will take time, but I feel good about it; I feel optimistic."
Ambassador Langdale said the benefits of the mission were immediately visible to those at the site, and the efforts extended beyond Piedra Mesa to other parts of the country.
The work being done at the site had a profound impact on those involved, like Tech. Sgt. Jennifer Parker. She said the MEDRETE, which was her first during her four-month deployment to Honduras from Langley Air Force Base, Va., was an immensely gratifying, but surreal experience.
"This is the kind of place I've only seen in magazines and on television," she said during the first day of the mission. "To be standing here, actually talking to these people and reaching out to them is an incredible feeling. This is the culmination of everything we prepare for at Soto Cano."
(Staff Sgt. Austin M. May, USAF serves with Joint Task Force-Bravo Public Affairs.)