Rionegro, Colombia –
South Carolina Army and Air National Guard medical personnel conducted a real-world humanitarian medical mission in the remote town of Tamana, Colombia last weekend during the regional Ángel de los Andes (Angel of the Andes) and Cooperación VII exercises. Approximately 30 members of the South Carolina National Guard are participating in the exercises from August 30 to September 10. The exercises provide training opportunities with South Carolina’s state partner, the Republic of Colombia, in realistic combat search and rescue missions as well as humanitarian aid and disaster response scenarios such as earthquakes and tsunamis.
“This whole exercise is about relationships and we’ve not only made relationships with our partners in the Colombian Air Force but we’ve also made partners with half a dozen civilian agencies and physicians in this community. I call it ‘Band-Aids not bullets diplomacy’ and we absolutely accomplished that today,” said U.S. Air Force Col. (Dr.) Phillip Latham, the 169th Medical Group commander.
On September 4, 2021 seven Swamp Fox doctors and med techs from the 169th Medical Group teamed up with three medics from the South Carolina Army National Guard to venture out into the tropical rainforest for a community medical support mission.
“This is why we are here,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. (Dr.) Chris Collins, a dentist with the 169th Medical Group. “We have training, we have education, we have gifts that we are able to give back to the community whether at home or here. I always feel like we get more out of it than the people we are helping,” he said.
Just getting to Tamana, Colombia was a challenge. The South Carolina National Guard medical team joined Colombian military and civilian medical personnel plus a news crew from a Medellin television station and departed the Colombian Air Force base in Rionegro on a Colombian Air Force C-130 Hercules aircraft. After travelling north for an hour, the plane landed at a remote airstrip where everyone boarded Colombian Air Force UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and flew to an elementary school about 20 minutes away.
“It makes you appreciate what you have. And they do seem appreciative for whatever you can do,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. (Dr.) Vanessa Wideman, a flight surgeon with the 169th Medical Group reflecting on her experience that day at the school. Wideman said she also participated in a similar mission in the Dominican Republic a few years ago.
In the span of a few hours, South Carolina National Guard medical personnel provided dental, optical, dermatology, pharmacy and general medical care to 526 local Colombians. It was sort of like déjà vu as Swamp Fox medical personnel conducted a similar community medical mission in Missouri back in June for Operation Healthy Delta. One might have called this event Operation Healthy Colombia. U.S. Air Force Maj. (Dr.) Sean Pitale, an optometrist with the 169th Medical Group, participated in Operation Healthy Delta as well as the trip to Tamana. When asked to compare the two missions, he said “I think it’s always a little bit different when you go to another country. Especially a poorer country. These are the people who really appreciate this kind of work.”
In fact, one of the local Colombians who Pitale treated, an elderly woman with failing eyesight, went above and beyond by blessing him in order to show her gratitude. Pitale was definitely taken by surprise. “I guess it’s customary in the country a lot of times to bless the provider or bless the doctor when they are getting treated, or at least treated well. She was nice enough as I spoke to her a little bit to appreciate what we were telling her about her vision. She was 80 years old and I had to explain to her what her situation was. But she was glad to be served and to be talked to in a nice and respectful manner,” Pitale said.
At the end of a very long day, everyone safely arrived back in Rionegro tired but in good spirits. “The personal rewards far exceed anything I could have ever expected. You just can’t measure the rewarding feeling you get when you help people like this. It was absolutely amazing and so rewarding for everybody. I had one of our Airmen tell me this one day makes the entire TDY. [The Colombian] people were very appreciative. The challenge was met by everyone in this group and we finished strong,” Latham said.