It’s another hot day in Gao, a small village north of Bamako, in the West African country of Mali. A team has assembled at a local village, preparing to perform tasks that would make the average person cringe. A team member is struggling to get a grip on a cow’s tongue. Another is fighting to repel insects. A woman tries to stop an infestation of worms from spreading, while another has only a few minutes to stick her hand in a mouth full of teeth and take one out.
This is not an episode of the popular television show Fear Factor. It’s the scene at a recent Medical Capabilities Exercise. MEDCAP, as its known, is a humanitarian operation designed to provide medical, dental, and veterinarian outreach to local civilian populations. During November, the team, consisting of a physician, a nurse, a dentist and a veterinarian, deployed with Special Operations Forces to Mali as part of Joint Combined Exchange Training in the area.
The exchange training pairs U.S. forces with Malian military officials to provide infantry training as part of the ongoing military-to-military relationship the United States enjoys with Mali. While Special Forces focus on interacting with the Malian military, the medical teams serve the local community by providing free basic medical and dental care for villagers and their livestock. By interacting with foreign military forces and exposing local civilian populations to positive contacts with U.S. military personnel, the United States hopes to strengthen counter-terrorism capabilities. Winning the hearts and minds of the locals with these MEDCAPS is part of that strategy.
Air Force Capt. Sharon Moss is a nurse and element leader of flight medicine, serving with the 435th Medical Group at Ramstein. She’s a Memphis, Tenn., native always looking for a challenge; she jumped at the opportunity to deploy to Africa to help the Special Operations Command, Europe with their work.
“Our focus is preventative medicine,” said Captain Moss. She administered anti-parasitic medicine to Gao villagers during the exercise which was conducted in a local school. “I was just hoping I could do some good [for the villagers.]”
Captain Moss, who served more than 290 children within a matter of hours, seemed unnerved by the long lines of needy children who waited in line to see the medical team.
Air Force Maj. (Dr.) Darin Brown, also worked vigorously in spite of the workload. He provided physical exams and health assessments focusing on children.
“If we can assist them while they’re young, they’ll be more able to deal with health issues in the future,” said Major Brown, a Charleston, Ill., native who also serves with the 435th. He is confident that the team has made a difference in the lives of the villagers.
“We have the ability to treat malaria and other real-world medical issues that some of these Malians face,” said Major Brown. “They can gain months of benefit from our assistance.”
Communicating with the villagers was a small obstacle, but the team used local interpreters to help them diagnose some of the less obvious illnesses. The team dentist, Air Force Capt. Sarah Clark, did not have that problem. The need for dental care in the area was evident; all she needed was the patient to open wide and say “aaaahhh.”
Captain Clark saw 63 dental patients, most of whom were children, within a matter of hours. Many required the removal of teeth, something that would take an appointment and lots of time with other dentists. But Captain Clark, a native of Sioux City, Iowa, knows that these children don’t have the time for such formalities.
On one patient, Captain Clark removed 15 teeth at one sitting. The child’s baby teeth were never removed, but were pushed outward by adult teeth that replaced them. This gave the patient an almost shark-toothed appearance and caused a lot of pain. It’s uncommon for dentists to remove so many teeth at one sitting, but it’s just part of the mission for Captain Clark.
“We performed brief clinical exams; removed teeth that caused pain, and educated them about dental hygiene,” said Captain Clark, also with the 435th Medical Group. “With so many children in need, it’s best just to do the duty and move on (to the next patient).”
With the occasional moans from the dentist’s chair, one would think that the other children would be scared away. Yet, the lines remained full even if some of the smaller children needed a bit of coaxing from their elders. Major Brown has a rational explanation for why the children overcome their fear to see the medical team.
“The phrase: ‘First, do no harm’ is part of the Hippocratic Oath, and it’s important to us,” Major Brown said. “The villagers know that we’re trying to build relationships; we’re trying to help.”
Maybe that is why there was no shortage of those seeking treatment during the medical exercise. So many, in fact, that the team was not able to see them all. When asked how it felt to leave the village while some may have been untreated, Captain Moss offered her perspective.
“You have to separate your personal feelings from the work to be done,” said Captain Moss. “Providing them with something is better than what they have now, and I know that even the little bit of service we provided will help them a great deal.”
It also helps the animals of the villages, as the team pulled together to assist U.S. Army Capt. (Dr.) Jeremy Bearss, the team’s veterinarian, assess the health of local livestock and provide treatment as necessary. Captain Bearss, who serves with the Northern Europe Veterinary Detachment at Royal Air Force Lakenheath, United Kingdom, provided anti-parasitics and vitamins to the village’s animal populations of more than 192 animals in three hours. The team tagged some of the animals so their health can be monitored in the future.
“One animal, one medicine,” jokes Bearss, who calls Beaver Island, Mich., home. However, he is serious about making sure the animals, many of which live among the villagers, are healthy.
“One of the most valuable things the villagers have is their animals,” said Captain Bearss. “If their animals are healthy, then their children (and their nutritional status) will be as well.”
Special Operations Command, Europe forces will continue to rely on the assistance of medical teams to perform Medical Capabilities Exercises as Special Forces focus their efforts on developing nations like Mali.
If the performance of Captain Bearss, Major Brown, Captain Clark and Captain Moss are any indication, future efforts to win the ‘hearts and minds’ will be a lot easier.