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Arizona medics go “Beyond the Horizon” to help Jamaican people

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Jordan Jones
  • 162nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
They arrived before the crack of dawn, some camped nearby waiting to be the first in line when the doors opened, but they weren't waiting for concert tickets or a 'Black Friday' sale; they were waiting for much-needed health care.

More than 3,700 Jamaicans were given free medical, eye and dental care April 11-26 when 35 Guardmembers from Arizona's 162nd Fighter Wing invested two weeks as part of United States Southern Command's "Beyond the Horizon" humanitarian assistance exercise.

"We helped 3,727 patients during a very short period," said Col. Michael Mangen, operation commander.

The tropical country of Jamaica is synonymous with reggae music, pristine beaches and tourism. But just beyond tourist areas, past the façade and into the real Jamaica, the Air Guard medical staff ventured to no-frill, make-shift clinics to help those less fortunate.

They split their time between three different sites; Albion Primary and Junior High, Retrieve All Age School, and Lottery All Age School, said the colonel. All locations were without many of the conveniences of modern technology.

"When you first go through medical or nursing school you get caught up in the technology of things; you have a piece of equipment that gives you information. But when you go back to basics you are listening with a stethoscope, taking the blood pressure, listening to the problems that someone is telling you without the benefits of a lab. You go back to what you learned - listening to the patients to help you reach a diagnosis," said Colonel Mangen.

"'Back to basics' to me means providing health care to the neediest of people - to people who really need the help and can't acquire health care on their own," said Lt. Col. (Dr.) John Murphy, optometrist.

The care provided ranged from simple check ups to diagnosing severe medical problems, pulling teeth and dispensing eye wear to people who otherwise would be legally blind.

State-run health care and medication in Jamaica are free. However, patients must often wait two-to-three months to get an appointment, and prescriptions are not always available.

"We saw several blind patients. Some were blind from lack of glasses - that's how bad their vision was," said Colonel Murphy.

"We took 4,000 pairs of glasses with us donated by the Lions Club. Members from the Med Group here went through them before we deployed putting each pair on a reader [machine] so that we knew what strength they were," said Colonel Mangen.

"The Jamaicans that received glasses had big smiles on their faces. There were instances where patients walked promptly out the front door with their glasses and a smile just to show everybody waiting outside. There were several times when the crowd applauded loudly because they knew the person was blind without them," said Colonel Murphy.

When comparing the cost of glasses to their minimum wage, $40 per week, it's easy to understand their exuberance.

A pair of glasses cost them the equivalent of $200 U.S., Colonel Murphy said. "That's five weeks of wages that you can't pay for your housing or for your food."

While there, U.S. servicemembers were protected by the Jamaican Defense Forces as part of the partnership agreement.

"They have open air jeeps and they all carry M-16s. We always had a Jeep in front and one in back - the guys inside were locked and loaded," said Colonel Mangen.

"In order to keep us from having to sit in traffic they did what I call 'splitting the red sea' - they just went right down the middle of both lanes and drove straight through the whole city," said Master Sgt. James Mulcahey, force protection leader from the wing's Security Forces Squadron.

"That way we weren't in jeopardy by sitting in traffic. You wouldn't see that here. From my career perspective that was a very interesting thing that occurred," said Mulcahey. "They did a good job. We felt safe."

While the health care was free to the Jamaican people, it was not without reward for the Guardsmen who went.

"The farmers came in and let us sample some of the local coconut, pineapple and sugarcane. It was like back in the old days when you saw the doctor and you brought him two chickens to pay for it," Colonel Mangen said.

Colonel Murphy recalled the first legally blind patient to receive glasses returned the next day to give him a hug. "That was the best part - to know we were doing some good there."

"This is a partnership," said Colonel Mangen. "It's a way to show the world that the U.S. Military does more than project force."

U.S. Southern Command launched Beyond the Horizon in 2008 as a new concept born from the 1980's "New Horizon" initiative. The exercise is scheduled to last several months with servicemembers from all branches of the Guard and Reserve deploying for short periods to Columbia, Dominican Republic and Jamaica this year. Nearly 350 servicemembers will participate at any one time.

The purpose of Beyond the Horizon exercises are to train U.S. servicemembers to carefully plan and conduct logistical operations to support deployments to remote regions, thus providing unparalleled training that cannot be simulated in the United States.

While in country, servicemembers provide humanitarian and civic assistance which include medical and dental services as well as construction and renovation of schools, medical clinics, community centers, water wells and roads. Veterinarian care is also provided help prevent diseases that could be passed from animals and livestock to a population.