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Army Soldiers, doctors treat more than 25,000 Dominican residents

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Sgt. John A. Berlanga, a medic with the 228th Combat Support Hospital in San Antonio, checks the pulse of an elderly woman at the medical readiness training exercise site June 7 in Laguneta, Dominican Republic. Sgt. John A. Berlanga, a medic with the 228th Combat Support Hospital in San Antonio, checks the pulse of an elderly woman at the medical readiness training exercise site June 7 in Laguneta, Dominican Republic.

Watching your infant child’s mild cough slowly turn into a forceful hack, and later a full-on struggle to breathe can be terrifying. Living in the countryside with no transportation and no medical clinics within your immediate area can surely turn that slight cough into a struggle for life.

For Anna Duran, a resident of Laguneta, Dominican Republic, this became a reality when last year, with the help of a passing motorcyclist, she carried her infant son several miles away to the town of Mao, where she begged doctors to save her child.

For many of the people of Laguneta and the Valverde Province, immediate, local access to healthcare is a foreign concept. For these people, medical facilities are too far away. For the Valverde populace, traveling 20 miles to the nearest medical clinic would be considered an epic journey.

However, for the past three months, there are new doctors in town; doctors in military uniforms wearing the rank and insignia of the U.S. Army and the residents of the Valverde Province capitalized on the sudden availability of healthcare. More than 25,000 residents of the province were treated by U.S. Soldiers and doctors, according to Lt. Col. Luis  A. Feliciano, the commander of the Partnership of the Americas Collaboration and Coordination Element  and commander of the 393rd Combat Services Support Battalion in Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico.

Since March 19, the Valverde Province has hosted more than 1,000 U.S. Soldiers. The Soldiers are in the Dominican Republic in support of BTH 11 DOM, a U.S. Southern Command-sponsored, U.S. Army South-led, joint service, interagency combined field training exercise geared to provide humanitarian and civic assistance to partner nations.

                “Anybody in the U.S. can walk into an emergency room and get healthcare,” said Maj. Daniel Schwartz, an emergency physician with the 5501st U.S. Army Hospital at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. “Here, that’s not necessarily the case. A lot of these people haven’t seen a doctor in 40 years.”

                BTH 11 DOM operated nine separate medical readiness training exercise (MEDRETE) locations between March 19 and June 11, providing dental, optometric and general healthcare. The Soldiers conducted routine dental extractions, administered eye exams and a pair of glasses, and provided basic medical support for other ailments to thousands of Dominican citizens.

“I want the Soldiers to go back home with plenty of confidence that what they have done here today will have a long-lasting effect in the community,” said Feliciano. “They should feel very proud of their ability to influence this country and share with the locals.”

Some Dominican residents admit they were skeptical at first, but were calmed by neighbors returning from the MEDRETE sites.

“At first, I didn’t think this was true. Why would American Soldiers come here and give me free medicine,” said Mediolina Santana, a Laguneta resident. “Many people cannot afford the medicine and treatment, but thanks to the Soldiers, it’s possible for the people to receive this today for free.”

                The Soldiers also benefitted from the real-world training and it provided them an opportunity to fulfill personal reasons of why they joined the Army.

                “It’s one of the reasons I joined the Army,” said Schwartz. “We have the ability to respond and we have the ability to provide care. This is a different face of the Army that I think we need to continue to show the world.”

                “Being down here is a lot different from being in the civilian sector,” said 1st Lt. Tarah Carnes, a nurse with the 228th Combat Support Hospital in San Antonio. “A lot of these people do not have proper healthcare and they are very grateful for what we’re giving. I think it not only helped me in my experience to take back to the civilian sector, but it helped me grow as a Soldier and as a nurse.”

In addition to providing healthcare to the Dominican people, a backdrop of the program was to conduct a joint-humanitarian assistance effort with the Dominican army and to work hand-in-hand with a variety of governmental and non-governmental agencies, to train in operations skill sets while providing medical care for the people of the region.   

“It is of vital importance for the unity and comradeship for our countries,” said Maj. Nathaniel Aria Dominguez, commander of the Special Operations Brigade of the Dominican Republic army. “The U.S. has always given us assistance when we need help. This exercise helps maintain the unity and friendly relationship between our countries.”

                “I believe we’ve been able to better understand the leadership and traditions of the Dominican army,” said Feliciano. “Without the support of the 4th Infantry Brigade of the Dominican Republic army, this would not have been possible.”

                Although the MEDRETE mission in the Dominican Republic is complete, the Soldiers hope the impression they leave will go a long way in improving healthcare in the region. For the residents, simply being able to look a doctor in the eye is all they need.

For Duran, the Dominican doctors saved her son that frightening day last year, but today she was able to have her entire family see a doctor and for her son to receive medicine for follow-up care from U.S. Soldiers and doctors.

“This program is very important,” said Duran. “It has helped me because I am a poor mother with four children and it has given me medicine for them. The Soldiers have been very good to the children. I am very thankful and will never forget that.”

                “To be able to simply walk in and tell a doctor their problems, get some advice and be able to get some medication, even if it’s for two weeks or a couple of days, it means the world to them,” said Schwartz. “There’s no replacing knowing that you made somebody’s life better if only for that day. If you can put a smile on their face and they shake your hand and say ‘thank you for listening, thank you for what you are doing.’ All we need is a smile; I don’t even need the words.”