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May Commander's Corner

U.S. Air Force Col. Joseph Stewart, the commander of the 169th Medical Group, at McEntire Joint National Guard Base, S.C, May 6, 2018. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Airman Megan Floyd)

U.S. Air Force Col. Joseph Stewart, the commander of the 169th Medical Group, at McEntire Joint National Guard Base, S.C, May 6, 2018. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Airman Megan Floyd)

MCENTIRE JOINT NATIONAL GUARD BASE, S.C. --

By now, everything you see or hear has something to do with the Covid-19 or the Corona Virus. While I cannot understate the importance of personal hygiene, social distancing and staying home if you feel sick, I am going to talk about something totally unrelated – the State Partnership Program or SPP.

Did you know South Carolina was one of the first states to join the program when it partnered with Albania back in July 1993? Although it did not last long due to internal political considerations, our state was eager to assist in the Balkans and former Soviet Union republics. Almost 20 years later in July 2012, South Carolina partnered with Colombia. Many of you may be aware it exists, but how many really understand how it benefits both countries? Overall, the SPP activity focus areas include security, engineering, operational planning, maintenance, disaster preparedness, humanitarian assistance and more. The key advantage is its low cost and high impact. Much of our value comes in knowledge and skills, not financial or material support for Colombia.

Once called the United States of Colombia, it was officially declared the Republic of Colombia in 1886.  Their political system is like ours with three branches of government, executive, legislative and judicial. Their military is broken up into three branches as well; Army, Navy and Air Force, however they also have a national police force which operates independently from the military. The Colombian Air Force (COLAF) operates 15 air units including both fixed and rotary wing aircraft. While COLAF does not fly F-16’s, they have fighter jets and share other similar air and ground models, which is why South Carolina was a natural match. While the partnership is more about military cooperation, that is not the focus of this article.

Most of the cooperation efforts entail sending three to five subject matter experts (SMEs) up or down in what amounts to a Staff Assistance Visit (SAV) for things like legal and UCMJ matters, project management and maintenance workflow. Others are much bigger. Last year, the 169th Fighter Wing sent a large contingent of personnel with aircraft to participate in both the Rel├ímpago Exercise and the Colombian Air Show.  

August 2020 was initially the timeframe for the 169FW to continue to build upon its partnership with Colombia by participating in a two-week, large-scale exercise called Angels of the Andes. However, due to COVID-19 containment precautions, the exercise has very recently been postponed to September 2021. Angels of the Andes III will simulate an earthquake response in the first week near the city of Palanquero and a Tsunami response the second week near Cove├▒as. Fifteen countries will provide support along with the 169th Medical Group. Supporting countries include Canada, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Argentina, Peru, Brazil, Bolivia, Panama and Chile. It’s very similar to the Vigilant Guard exercises the National Guard hosts.

Although the primary focus of the exercise from the supporting countries perspective centers around the aviation capabilities, the 169th Medical Group will be the primary ground-based medical support provider. Swamp Fox medical personnel will be tasked to set up triage stations to process simulated casualties from the affected areas and get them prepped for medical evacuation or MEDEVAC and received from air transport for final disposition. Some or our members will also be training on one of our new missions, Critical Care Air Transport or CCAT. The opportunity to fly and transport patients on foreign aircraft in this manner is very exciting.

While the exercise is going to be a great opportunity for training and working with other countries and how they practice aerospace medicine, the 169MDG will also be conducting a humanitarian event to an underserved part of Colombia. We will offer dental care, optometry services – include distributing free glasses – as well as other family medicine and public health services for to up to 400 Colombian citizens.

While there has been a lot of planning, three week-long planning sessions, and hard work put into this, current events certainly have delayed our timeline. There is no question whether we will return to normal operating tempo in time. Until that point, all we can do is remain flexible. When the time comes, the 169MDG will shine like Swamp Foxes always do!