Monday, June 10, 2013

A Different Kind of Mission

Parked in a field in Canita, Panama
It can be forgiven if the image that first comes to mind at the words "military mission" involve weapons, body armor, and troops moving to contact.  After all, for the last decade we've been involved in shooting wars in several countries.  There is another kind of mission that has been getting less press, but is important none the less, that being the humanitarian mission.  The National Guard unit I belong to along with other Guard, Reserve and active duty Army and Air Force have spent the last several months in Panama providing medical aid and engineering support in the form of building schools and clinics for the Panamanian people as a part of Operation Beyond the Horizon. Being a Blackhawk unit our support has been peripheral to main mission, consisting of standing by in case a medical emergency required evacuation to one of the hospitals available.  We also moved medical supplies and people around the country side and did a little training along the way.

More after the break...

Air Force construction engineers using an old coastal artillery battery as a workshop to build trusses.
The big players in the mission were the engineers who did the building, and the medical personnel who set up in local villages to do health screenings.   An ongoing mission being run by Southern Command, this years mission started in March and will finish up in July.  We provided three helicopters and a small  staff of "duration" people to coordinate with the other units.  Crew and support staff have been rotating down for three week intervals to the old Army facilities at Ft Sherman near Colon on the north (Atlantic) side of the canal.

The old barracks at Ft Sherman.  The Porta-Johns lined up out back should tell you something about the plumbing.
We occupied barracks that have been largely abandoned since the 90's, and while they looked nice from a distance, they were somewhat spartan.  The plumbing had been repaired, so power and water were usually available.  No glass in the windows, just screens, and we slept in mosquito nets which kind of kill the breeze.  Being right on the coast the temperatures and humidity were not as bad as in the central parts of the country.

Inside the barracks
Our work area

 Being a temporary location, breakfast and dinner were provided by Army cooks, with an MRE being provided for lunch each day.  Everyone so far has lost weight on this trip.  There is a marina nearby with a restaurant, but while the food was generally good the service was on Panama time, meaning plan on an hour wait to get your food.  I think everyone was able to get there a couple times for a change, but it was really only an option for dinner. 

The marina - there were some pretty nice boats in evidence
Our typical workday started around 0630 when the "1st up" crew would go preflight their helicopter, run it up and do the performance checks prior to shutting down to alert status.  The goal was to be able to launch within 15 minutes of a call for a CASEVAC.  Of the two during rotation 4 the launch times were 14 and 10 minutes.  Once that was complete we would do the daily maintenance on all of our support equipment, and work on any problems that may have occurred with any of the birds.

Corrosion Control Inspection
Since we were operating in a salt water environment, special attention was given to corrosion.  In addition to our detailed inspections whenever one of the helicopters flew the engines would get a fresh water flush and the airframe rinsed.  This process added about a half hour to our recovery time, but prevented a lot of more difficult problems.  We also had some airframe repairs to do on our rotation, replacing a driveshaft cover, a windscreen, and repairing rotor blade tips and nose panels.  Our airframes guy got quite the workout.

Repairing the nose panel
In addition to the alert bird there were frequently flights that operated out of the medical screening sites, in some cases staying for several days.  While at these sites we had the opportunity to see how life in the villages was, and get a feel for the Panamanian people.  We would always draw a crowd of children (and adults) to the helicopter when we came in. 

Local children enjoying a helicopter tour
It was interesting that people were very respectful about approaching the helicopters.  Even at Ft Sherman they would ask before taking pictures and would be very excited when we would give them the nickel tour.  Once we closed up the bird and went to the med site they would leave it alone.

Med Ready at Canita

The medical sites were run similar to the SRP (Soldier Readiness Process) that we go through prior to deployment, with some modifications.  There were stations for the various kinds of health screenings, but they were also ready to perform field surgery and at least one baby was born in the screening at Metati.  Overall it seems that in the Panamanian villages health is pretty good - some dental issues that required tooth removal being the most common problem. 

Field Surgery
Above a large cyst is being removed from one of the villagers.  The whole operation only took about a half hour, and as you can see it was something of an open gallery.  Unlike an SRP, veterinary medicine was well represented.  While the larger cattle concerns had their own programs, veterinarians went out to the smaller ranches to provide livestock and equestrian support.  There was also a vet at the med site who spent most of the time checking out the local dogs who are working members of the family as well as some larger animals.

The Vet checks out a local horse
While at these sites we would take a break to go to a local market or restaurant and get some food.  Even in the smaller villages there was no problem eating the local food, and it beat the MRE's we had brought for lunch.  And all of the soda drinkers loved the local Coca-Cola.  Made with sugar instead of whatever they use now. 

Local restaurant
While we kept busy, we did have some down time.  Once the daily maintenance was taken care of we would generally have a couple hours break before a bird got back where we could take a short hike to some of the old artillery batteries or go snorkeling.  There was a little spear fishing to be done, but the duration staff went out at night and got most of the aquatic "game."  The water was a little cloudy, but warm and quite pleasant as long as you remembered to be careful on the reefs.  Coral is sharp, and we did have some jelly fish stings to deal with.

Coral about 10 feet down
Exploring an abandoned coastal artillery battery
Once every couple of weeks we would host a training session on sling loads for the construction engineers where they would be shown how to rig a load and had the opportunity to hook up a cargo net, a "water buffalo" and a HMMWV up to a Blackhawk.  It would generally take all morning to run everyone through, then in the afternoon there would be 20 minute "incentive rides" for anyone interested.  It made for a busy day, but it provided a good break for all concerned.

HMMWV getting hooked up.  It's windy down there...
Finally, when our three weeks was almost up we had our company cook out, packed up and got ready for our return to the states, to let the next rotation take over.

Fried alligator and rice, anyone?
For more pictures of the trip, you can check out my Flickr set here.

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