Marines

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Service members stand together in the town of Old Harbor, Alaska during exercise Artic Care April 2, 2014. Exercise Arctic Care brought teams of personnel from all branches of the Armed Forces to Kodiak Island to administer needed care and medical education to the communities of Akhiok, Karluk, Larsen Bay, Port Lions, Ouzinke, Old Harbor, and the town of Kodiak. Such places where sea and air are the only methods of travel, dental and medical services can be hard to find.

Photo by Courtesy photo

Service members care for Alaska natives

17 Apr 2014 | Sgt. Frans E. Labranche

In the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton challenged Americans with his “Rebuild America” initiative. As president, he tasked the Department of Defense to search for innovative programs, which would serve American communities in need and provide realistic military training benefits. The Innovative Readiness Program does just that.

For many Alaska natives, hospitals and health clinics are a day’s journey away by air or boat with the weather frequently affecting both. Innovative Readiness Training Arctic Care is the largest recurring joint medical readiness and logistics training exercise, providing humanitarian assistance to underserved American Indians and Alaska natives.

From March 29 to April 10, IRT Arctic Care brought teams of personnel from all branches of the armed forces to Kodiak Island to provide necessary medical care and education to the communities of Akhiok, Karluk, Larsen Bay, Port Lions, Ouzinkie, Old Harbor, and the town of Kodiak.

Pilots from the Alaska Army National Guard flew medical teams to hard to reach destinations. Those teams included:  Air Force medical and administrative personnel from the Guard and Reserve, Navy Corpsmen from 4th Medical Battalion, 4th Marine Logistics Group, Army Veterinarians, and Coast Guard pilots and flight line personnel.

“The Arctic Care mission was the single most important health and service event of the year for many of those residing in our small rural communities,” said Andy Teuber, president and chief executive officer of the Kodiak Area Native Association. “Transportation and accommodations are extremely expensive access to healthcare, and the other services delivered by the IRT is difficult or impossible for many.”
           
Organizations and municipalities can request aid from the IRT program which then makes decisions about what can be provided based on needs of the groups and training needs of the services.

“What the IRT does is deploy resources directly to those who would otherwise be without,” said Teuber. “They improve, and in many cases, save lives. For these communities, where healthcare providers and resources are either scarce or non-existent, the IRT might be the only healthcare encounter they receive in years.”

The Arctic Care mission this year focused on bringing dental, optometry, health education and veterinary services to the Alaskan communities. Each village has a clinic, but it is staffed by a member of the community who has very basic medical training and is ill-equipped to deal with a standard patient load.  It was the task of the service members to come in and give check-ups and guidance for the future healthy living of the villages’ residents.

Providing this care for the Alaska natives was greatly appreciated.

“The community spoiled us,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Paul Reed, the executive officer of Surgical Company A, 4th Medical Bn. “They were so appreciative of what we were able to bring to them that they made sure we didn’t want for anything, from rides around town to food.”

The reception of the Arctic Care team was warm and welcome in each location with community members going out of their way to keep the volunteers comfortable.

“We came out here as a training exercise that gives back, but maybe we came away with more than we arrived,” said Air National Guard Lt. Col. Larry Debuhr, officer-in-charge of IRT Arctic Care. “Just seeing that folks with near nothing are willing to feed service members, were proud of where they are, and proud of their culture; I think we’ll go back knowing you can always give of yourself.”

Prior to the exercise, almost none of the service men and women knew each other.  The IRT program is unique in that service members volunteer to attend programs and do not rely on their individual commands to order their attendance.  This is the case for many IRT programs and the only requirement is that the requesting service member can appropriately fill a spot for the exercise.

“Considering we didn’t know each other in the beginning, everyone worked extremely well together,” said Navy Reserve Capt. Lori Karnes, team leader for the Kodiak Clinic team. “Everyone on my team was focused on the patients first and they were all very professional.  We benefitted from the team members having the same profession here as they do in their civilian lives which made things truly great here.”

The high level of service did not go unnoticed.

“Overall, professionalism has always been exemplary, but this year was truly remarkable” said Teuber, referring to past IRT visits in 2005 and 2008. “Despite some initial funding challenges, the mission was the most successful to date and the Kodiak Area Native Association has already filed its application for 2016.”

Aside from providing care, many service members had the opportunity to connect with the community around them. They spent time in the Kodiak animal shelter and participated in other community events. The Kodiak Museum and Russian Orthodox Church both hosted visits for the service members, and the men and women volunteered for and attended a community fish fry.

“This event has been around for 30 years,” said Brian Cleary, the principal of St. Mary’s School, which hosted the fish fry. “We only have 54 students in our school, but as you can see there are plenty more than 50 families here. To have the military members here feels natural in such a diverse atmosphere.”

The spirit of the exercise was summed up as one of giving and learning.

“The experience here has been life-changing,” Debuhr said. “I’ve never been more proud of the people I have served with. I couldn’t ask for more. We came here as five services, got together, and worked as one.”