SIKESTON, MO --
More than 40 Airmen from the South Carolina Air National Guard (SCANG) deployed to the Midwest to participate in Operation Healthy Delta 2021, a Department of Defense sponsored Innovative Readiness Training (IRT) program designed to provide military training opportunities by delivering key services to local citizens in underserved communities. Swamp Foxes from the 169th Medical Group and 169th Force Support Squadron provided medical and food service support in three locations in Sikeston, Missouri, Caruthersville, Missouri and Metropolis, Illinois June 14-24.
A dozen members from the 169th Force Support Squadron joined approximately 30 members from the 169th Medical Group and were split among three separate locations, each more than an hour’s drive from the other. Food services personnel provided three daily meals in the Sikeston, Caruthersville and Metropolis locations. Medical specialties sent from McEntire Joint National Guard Base included dentists, optometrists, providers (doctors who handed general medical issues), medics, dental technicians, optometry technicians, and public health who worked in all three locations as well.
U.S. Air Force Maj. Dan Linkroum, medical readiness officer with the 169th Medical Group, served as the operations officer in the command center for Operation Healthy Delta. He was the lead planner for the SCANG and worked on the preparation for this mission for nearly two years. Linkroum explained this is the first time the SCANG as a whole has participated in a medical IRT mission.
Operation Healthy Delta 2021 is a collaboration between the Department of Defense and the Delta Area Economic Opportunity Corporation in Missouri, which served as the lead community partner. The event utilizes DoD medical personnel in two Missouri locations and one Illinois location to provide no-cost medical services to local citizens. More than 200 uniformed personnel from the SCANG plus the Arizona Air National Guard’s 162nd Wing, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Air Force Reserve, U.S. Navy Reserve, U.S. Army Reserve, Naval Ophthalmic Support and Training Activity (NOSTRA) and U.S. Public Health Service participated in the 10 day event which attracted more than 100 patients per day at each site. The no-cost medical services provided included optometry, health exams, student physicals, behavioral health, dental, and pharmacy. NOSTRA was particularly notable for their ability to produce eyeglasses on site in Sikeston and have them back to the patients within a day or two, a remarkable achievement.
These medical IRTs are a classic “win-win” situation for the military and the community. The local population receives much needed health care that they would not otherwise have access to or could afford. And the military receives valuable readiness training and maintains proficiency in essential tasks needed in wartime and domestic operations response. The value of medical treatment provided in the first three days alone exceed $277,000 according to U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Richard Maldonado, the mission OIC.
The sites in Sikeston and Caruthersville were hosted by local churches while the site in Metropolis was based at the county high school. “I’m just so impressed. Considering [Miner Baptist Church] was empty 48 hours ago and now it’s a full on dental, optometry and medical care clinic,” said U.S. Air Force Col. Phillip Latham, 169th Medical Group Commander who served as a provider at the Sikeston location.
Latham explained even though each site didn’t open until 8 a.m., some people arrived in the middle of the night just make sure they could get seen and not miss out. Not surprisingly, optical and dental services are in high demand during these IRT medical missions. “Some of them do have access to base medical care. But typically they have zero access to dental and optometry. And some of them have been lost in the system,” Latham said.
But Latham also explained that the military had to be ready to respond to any medical issue or situation that came through the door. “We’ve seen everything from skin problems, to blood pressure issues, to ear, nose and throat to bronchitis, GI [Gastrointestinal] issues…we’ve run the gamut of acute and chronic issues which is what you would expect in an ER type of setting. We’re seeing all comers.”
Once the onsite screening and treatment is complete, the medical personnel do a warm hand off to the community partners for follow up care. “If what we’re doing is not enough, like somebody needs ongoing care, the community partners are literally poised at the exit and we introduce them to those folks and help the patient know about those local resources. We try to make sure this is not a once and done type of operation. Nobody is going to get healthcare in one day,” Latham said.
SCANG medical personnel received a minimum of eight hours a day of formalized training or as part of the services provided including triage skills, suture training, clinic set-up, medical supply and distribution, tactical supply acquisition and so on, Latham explained. In just three days alone, all the medical personnel working at the three sites racked up 10,000 hours of documentable training, according to Maldonado.
The morale and enthusiasm from the military personnel was very high. “Everybody’s been hard working and flexible. I keep getting asked to pick out stellar performers [for awards] and I can’t pick out the underperformers in this group. I think everyone who is here is a stellar performer. I’m not trying to sound like a cheerleader. That’s just the facts of what’s going on. They’re doing an awesome job,” Latham said.
Summing up his experience so far, Latham said “It’s such a rewarding experience for me personally as well as for our Airmen.”