WAILUKU, Hawaii. – Twenty-four members of the 163d Medical Group from March Air Reserve Base, Calif., participated in Tropic Care 2013, a joint readiness training mission that offered free health care to medically underserved areas of the state from June 4 to 12. They joined more than 500 other U.S. service members that gathered across Hawaii for the operation.
The Innovative Readiness Training mission was designed to prepare service members for rapid response missions and disaster relief in a tropical setting while simultaneously aiding the local populace, said Air Force Col. Jerry Arends, mission director for Tropic Care 2013. It involved active duty, Guard and Reserve units from the U.S. Air Force, Army and Navy.
Optometry, dentistry, physical exams and counseling were among the types of care provided, all of which locals received on a “first come, first served” basis, free of charge and without any form of identification required until operations ended on June 12.
By mission’s end, the clinics saw approximately 6,000 optometry patients, 3,000 dental patients and 3,000 medical patients. More than a thousand prescription glasses were made during the mission, the largest IRT operation to date.
Members of the 163 MDG were spread out across three islands. The group included junior enlisted airmen getting their first experiences with this type of training.
“For them it’s very valuable because it gives them an overview of what we actually do in the field, especially for someone new to the unit that’s never been deployed,” said Maj. Julian Manalo, site commander for the Iao Intermediate School clinic. “It gives them a chance to see what it’s like, to see the living conditions and what’s involved with the work. It’s good training.”
The medical group’s team included optometry technicians, dental hygienists, nurses, a pediatrician, a logistics specialist, a dentist, medics, public health specialists, two site commanders and more. They were joined by Col. David Walton, California Air National Guard’s state air surgeon, who provided his services in women’s health on Lana’i.
The group was a major contributor to the mission, with personnel working at several clinical sites in Maui, Ka’u and on the big island of Hawaii.
Senior Airman Katy Peña, a medic, was among the 163 MDG’s team members in Maui. She said the mission was an excellent training experience as well as an excellent life experience.
“On one hand you get real-world training, treating people with symptoms that you don’t normally see on the mainland,” said Peña. “On the other hand, you also see what the conditions are like for people who live here and can’t afford health care. You really learn to appreciate things.”
Some were prescribed medicine for simple aches and pains, others were able to receive prescription glasses made completely on-site, and there were even potentially life-changing experiences.
Manalo and Peña recalled a young girl who traveled from another island with her mother when they heard about the military’s offering of free medical treatment. The girl suffered from elephantiasis, a condition characterized by the gross enlargement of areas of the body, typically the limbs. The parasitic infection had caused the girl’s leg to balloon in size, which caused her pain and also stunted her growth. She was 14 years old, though at first glance many thought she was closer to half that age.
She was able to be treated and referred to the Department of Public Health for continued treatment. It was estimated that her leg would return to a normal size in about one year, which would enable her to live a more normal life.
Another local was particularly grateful for the mission.
“It is a blessing for me because I don’t have health care,” said 61-year-old Ernesto Leano, who was being treated for back problems. “I said, ‘thank God,’ when I saw this.”
“I’m very happy to see you here,” said Leano. “I will never forget in my life how they helped me here.”
The next destination for the 163 MDG is Latvia, as they accompany a civil engineer unit on a mission to build a schoolhouse. That mission is slated for August.