***image1***Thirty-three medical personnel descended upon the Sahara Desert destined to change the lives of citizens in the vicinity of Guelmim, Morocco, known as “the Gateway to the Sahara.” The group, which included several KMC servicemembers, was there for Exercise African Lion ‘06, held May 22 to 31.
The medical team set out to change the lives of the impoverished desert inhabitants – whose religion is Islam, whose money system is based on the camel standard and whose neighborhoods are suggestive of 2000 years ago.
The experience ended up being life-altering for many of the participants, due to the fact their specialties enabled them to touch the lives of more than 9,400 citizens during the seven-day exercise.
“My life is forever changed,” said Capt. Alvin Barber, 435th Medical Squadron physician assistant. “I left a piece of my heart in Morocco. The people were the most grateful I have ever seen. You could tell that each person would give you the shirt from their back in return for the help they received.”
Captain Barber, who works in Ramstein’s Family Practice Clinic, arrived in Morocco a few days ahead of the main body as a member of the advance (advon) team to assist the lead planner on final touches for the humanitarian mission. Throughout the mission he provided pediatric care to impoverished children in the Guelmim province. Six other KMC medics later linked up with Captain Barber and the advon team in Morocco.
The team was a mix of reservists and active-duty from the Air Force, Navy and Moroccan military, and represented the specialties of obstetrics and gynecology, optometry, dentistry, family practice, internal medicine, dermatology and pediatrics.
Many on the mission were seasoned for the task ahead, but first-timer Dr. (Capt.) Paul Hilfer, 435th Dental Squadron dentist, was not sure what to expect.
“I expected that I would be pulling teeth and limited dentistry,” he said. “What I didn’t anticipate was how much I would be impacted by the humble and grateful attitudes of everyone. You can’t describe the satisfaction of treating such a patient population – every little aspect of care given made a difference in their lives and you could see it in their smiles.”
Daily, half the team visited a designated village while the other half received people at the Guelmim Military Hospital. A different mixture of the team visited a new village every day. The team provided medical care to a total of seven villages. The average patient load, split between the designated village site and the Guelmim Military Hospital, was about 1,300 per day.
“You could see that many of the people we saw were apprehensive at first,” said Captain Barber. “They quickly gave us the trust we needed to give them the best care we could in the given environment.”
Even though the team worked long hours under the heat of the desert sun and in austere conditions, they felt rewarded by the cultural exchange.
If team members happened to be in the right place at lunch, locals asked them to dig in to the hot dishes of tajine, which is a mixture of meat, chicken, beef or goat, and vegetables seasoned with local spices. The dish is eaten by hand and served with freshly baked bread.
Each host village also served the team “Moroccan whiskey” – hot, sweet, non-alcoholic Moroccan-herbal tea – that served as a boost for the team to carry them through the long day.
After the team finished their work, the villages rewarded them with a reception featuring music, dancing and refreshments. However, most team members agreed that the smiles of approval and appreciation on the villagers’ faces was thanks enough for the job they had done.
Other KMC medics included Doctors (Lt. Col.) Marc Hester, gynecologist, (Maj.) Paul Bostram, dermatologist, and (Capt.) Justin Cummings, internal medicine, of Landstuhl Regional Medical Center; Dr. (Maj) Scott McKim, optometrist, and Staff Sgt. Melissa Solis, dental technician of the 435th Medical Group.
Exercise African Lion is a regularly-scheduled, bi-lateral exercise for U.S. and Moroccan ground forces to promote improved interoperability and mutual understanding of each nation’s tactics, techniques and procedures.