EL PASO COUNTY, Texas —
During a time where readiness is at the forefront of every military leader’s mind, unit commanders are focused on creative ways to ensure their unit and Soldiers get the best training possible while meeting requirements at both the individual and collective levels. For some medical units, this is where the Department of Defense’s Innovative Readiness Training, or IRT, missions come in.
Nearly 50 U.S. Army Reserve Soldiers assigned to Army Reserve Medical Command’s 7451st Medical Backfill Battalion, and U.S. Army medical personnel assigned to the 166th Medical Detachment (Optometry), both based out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, offered health care services at the Escontrias Early Childhood Center in Socorro, Texas, and Project Vida Health Center in Fort Hancock, Texas, during the Western Rio Grande IRT mission from June 18-28.
Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, commanding general for U.S. Army North (Fifth Army), shared the impact this mission made based on what he saw firsthand during his visit to Socorro.
“The Soldiers I visited today are providing prescription eyeglasses, audiology, immunizations, dental care and general wellness services to many people who haven’t seen a doctor in years,” Buchanan said. “It’s a true partnership with the city, county, state, academic institutions and many volunteers. Great work being done by all.”
Army North has a unique relationship with the Texas A&M Colonias Program forged through a private public partnership signing in 2017. For this IRT mission, once the project application was approved by the Department of Defense, Army North’s Army Reserve Engagement Cell coordinated with Army and Army Reserve units to find the right capabilities to meet specific needs in economically disadvantaged communities along the southern border of El Paso county.
This mission provides critically needed services to America’s citizens while increasing Soldiers readiness. Col. Jarrett Sands, a family medicine physician assigned to 7451st MBB and the officer-in-charge for the mission, explained the positive impact it has made for his Soldiers who are providing medical services.
“For an Army Reserve medical unit to pull together, gather all the gear that’s needed, go through the process of ordering equipment, medications and supplies; packing all of that up and loading your team up to go somewhere else, set up shop in the new location and delivering healthcare? That makes this mission a great opportunity for team building, working on processes and communication. Working together as a team getting here and getting it all set up – that’s what’s hard,” Sands said.
Aside from preparation, movement and building team efficiencies, Sands believes the mission also provides a good opportunity to refine individual Soldiers skills.
“Normally our annual training is typically focused on Soldier care – young, relatively healthy troops out in the middle of wherever the mission is. Here we are seeing diabetes, high blood pressure, and even babies. This is a far more diverse patient population which is great, and there’s something extra special about coming into a community and helping the American people like this,” Sands said.
Maj. Sheri Loveland, an audiologist assigned to 7451st MBB echoed Sands’ sentiments regarding the personal satisfaction of helping those in need.
“I had a patient yesterday who was 85 years old, and her daughter brought her in. Her hearing thresholds were so low that she wasn’t hearing anyone talking to her, so she’s just sitting there. I fit a set of hearing aids on her, and immediately she was a different person. She was smiling, she was talking to us and telling jokes. Her daughter started crying and soon all six of us in the room were crying,” Loveland recalled.
“It’s amazing to do that, to get that instant gratification that you helped someone and made that person’s life better. That’s why we do what we do,” Loveland said.
Capt. Barron Davis, a general dentist assigned to 3rd Special Forces Group who assisted with the mission, believes that his conviction to serve others is why he serves as a dentist in the U.S. Army today.
“When I initially decided to be a dentist, one of the things I wanted to do was to travel into isolated areas in the mountains where I’m from and provide services to elderly people, and those who are medically compromised who have difficulty making it into the clinic. I haven’t had the opportunity to do that yet, but this IRT mission is a step in that direction and it’s very rewarding,” Davis said.
“You stay busy all day not only providing needed dental care, but also providing education on oral hygiene and preventing further damage to their teeth which is a big part of our mission, and they’re so thankful for everything we can do for them,” Davis added.
IRT missions require a partnership between civilian communities and the military personnel providing support in order for these missions to be successful. For medical missions, an important piece is having an organization in place that can provide continuity of care for patients receiving services. For the Western Rio Grande mission, Centro San Vicente Health Center stepped forward to support that need.
Dr. Jose Luna Jr., a family physician with Centro San Vicente Health Center in El Paso, Texas, explained why the mission is desperately needed in the area.
“There are approximately 30,000 people living in underdeveloped shanty towns called colonias, and they have very limited access to health care,” Luna said. “The streets are not developed, there are no sidewalks, and a lot of places still do not have running water to this day. It’s hard to imagine in America, but this is the reality.”
But Luna confirmed there was definitely progress being made.
“Besides providing immediate care, we’re finding people with illnesses that we can treat to prevent more serious illness down the road.
“San Vicente will do all the follow-up visits for anyone who has a significant medical issue, including dental care. We have a full dentistry service and full medical care so anybody that has something that needs to be addressed for the long term, we’re there to serve,” Luna said.
During the two-week period, more than 2,500 medical, optical and dental services were provided to nearly 1,675 residents, including general exams, school exams, nutrition counseling, physical therapy, dental exams and X-rays, general cleaning and extractions and nearly 1,100 pairs of eyeglasses were fabricated and distributed to residents in need.
“We are transforming lives in the colonias. We are creating capacity – everywhere. We are creating sustainability. We built it in to the plan so that this work can be sustained,” said Oscar Munoz, director for the Texas A&M Colonias Program.
Army Reserve Medical Command’s mission is to provide trained, equipped, medically proficient units and Citizen-Soldiers to meet global requirements across unified land operations.