EL CENIZO, Texas –
Corralling her young children in the waiting room, Claudia Miramontes had each of her five girls treated by Army Reserve Soldiers on a medical readiness mission at the El Cenizo Community Center, just a mile from the Texas-Mexico border.
Every time one of her girls needs a medical appointment, the 26-year-old mother said, it costs her family between $100-200 per child. Her visit to the center, where Soldiers are offering free medical services as part of their Innovative Readiness Training, or IRT, would help her from dipping into the family’s limited savings.
“We either have to cut groceries or something else just to get them checked,” she said. “Or maybe one week one of the children gets checked, and then the other week another one.”
A stay-at-home mom, Miramontes and her family live in one of Webb County’s 62 unincorporated towns – colloquially known as colonias – that lack one or more major infrastructures, such as potable water, sewer systems, electricity, paved roads or storm drainage.
Affordable health care can also be nonexistent in these economically distressed communities.
While her husband works as a truck driver, Miramontes said, he only makes around $800 a week, which is stretched thin to keep seven people well-fed and healthy.
“We try to limit ourselves on a lot of things,” she said, adding health care can sometimes be put on hold due to high costs. The IRT mission, she said, has helped fill some of that gap. “It really helps me and my husband out. It saved us a lot.”
Hearing similar stories of struggling families, the U.S. Army North’s Army Reserve Engagement Cell, known as AREC, visited Webb County after the Texas A&M University’s colonias program, which supports several of these border communities, identified specific needs with which the Soldiers could help.
The AREC team then assisted the county in submitting an IRT application through the Defense Department, which resulted in nearly 200 Reserve Soldiers, along with a few Navy opticians, participating in the two-week operation that ends June 29.
The largest effort of the IRT mission has been providing health services at four community centers near the city of Laredo. Engineer and civil affairs teams are performing other services from construction projects to surveys.
During the first three days of operation, which began Monday, Soldiers partnering with local health workers and nursing students from the Texas A&M Corpus Christi campus conducted more than 500 appointments each across three fields, including medical, dental and vision.
“From what we’ve seen in the first couple of days of the operation, it’s going very well,” said Sgt. 1st Class Jacob Pattison, one of the AREC coordinators.
“You have a lot of moving parts that need to line up to make everything go well and everyone has put in their hard work,” he added. “It’s awesome to see it pay off for the benefit of all the people involved.”
At the Larga Vista Community Center, Maj. Edward King and his team with the 7458th Medical Backfill Battalion from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, have been working at one of the busiest centers.
The center covers 14 colonias, and dozens of local residents could be seen Wednesday afternoon waiting for medical care.
While King described the substantial savings residents get from the free services, he noted that Soldiers were also getting something in return.
“There’s a dual benefit because we actually get to come out here and perform a real-word mission,” said King, the officer-in-charge at the Larga Vista center. “It allows us to develop our skills and improve our training. In the meantime we’re also providing a valuable service to the people in the area.”
There have also been heartwarming encounters with patients. The other day, he recalled, a client came in to get her eyeglasses. When she put them on, she started to cry, he said.
“We were able to witness a significant impact that we had on that individual,” he said. “That is just one example. Every patient down here is very grateful and again we are grateful for the opportunity to train and serve these people.”
Back in El Cenizo, Victor Garcia, a 49-year-old landscaper, had a few tooth fillings done by an Army dentist. Because of the pricey procedure, he said, he had to put it off and suffer through the pain.
“It stopped me from getting my teeth fixed because I had cavities and told me how much it would cost to fix, but I couldn’t pay for it,” he said Tuesday. “It wasn’t until I was able to come here and get them fixed that I finally got some relief from the pain.”
Having a Soldier repair his teeth was also a unique experience for him. “I like the fact that it was a Soldier and not just a civilian dentist,” he said. “It just felt a bit more special.”
A majority of the Reserve Soldiers have volunteered for the mission, knowing it would provide them with realistic training. Spc. Kayla Fouts, who is helping out at Larga Vista, is one of them.
Back in North Carolina, the 22-year-old Soldier is a licensed practical nurse at a rehabilitation facility where she often sees the same patients on a daily basis. But now in south Texas, she’s seeing different patients of all ages with a variety of ailments.
“Being a hands-on learner, it gives me that opportunity to better hone my skills as a LPN and also to just see different things,” she said.
With many patients only being able to speak Spanish, the language barrier has also presented challenges, forcing her to be more adaptive – a key trait needed by Soldiers in deployed environments.
“I take it as it comes and just roll with the punches,” she said.
There has also been a strong emphasis on being a cohesive team to handle the lines of patients. “I see myself as a piece in a puzzle ... and you just have to come together as a unit to help other people,” she said.
That sense of teamwork also involves civilian organizations who are participating in the outreach to ensure that care for colonia residents will continue long after the Army leaves. A federally-funded community health center in Laredo has agreed to take in patients for their follow-up care at little or no cost, according to Oscar Muñoz, director of Texas A&M’s colonias program.
“It’s not a one-shot deal where they only get services when you guys are here,” Muñoz said of the Reserve Soldiers. “What you guys are starting is going to be something that’s going to be beneficial for all the colonia residents for as long as they want.”
This is important because even with health insurance, Muñoz noted, many colonia residents are still denied services by local medical providers, which limit the number of people they can accept.
“Some of the medical providers have found ways of saying no without ever using that word,” he said. “Residents have insurance coverage, but there are not many service providers that accept it.”
His office is currently working to bring back more IRT missions to Laredo and expand them to other border regions, such as El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley.
For Fouts and other Soldiers, they say any chance to do this type of mission would be worth the training dollars.
“It helps us do our job for the good of the people,” she said. “For me personally, I enjoy doing humanitarian work. We’re going to get nowhere if we just do it for ourselves; we have to do it for other people as well.”