SCNG conducts 'Band-Aids not bullets diplomacy' in Colombia

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Jim St. Clair,
  • 169th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

RIONEGRO, Colombia – South Carolina Army and Air National Guard medical personnel conducted a humanitarian medical mission in the remote town of Tamana, Colombia, during the regional Ángel de los Andes (Angel of the Andes) and Cooperación VII exercises. 

Approximately 30 SCNG members are participating in the exercises Aug. 30 to Sept. 10. 

The exercises provide training opportunities with South Carolina's State Partnership Program partner, the Republic of Colombia, in realistic combat search and rescue missions, humanitarian aid and disaster response scenarios such as earthquakes and tsunamis.

"This whole exercise is about relationships, and we've not only made relationships with our partners in the Colombian Air Force, but we've also made partners with half a dozen civilian agencies and physicians in this community," said U.S. Air Force Col. (Dr.) Phillip Latham, the 169th Medical Group commander. "I call it 'Band-Aids not bullets diplomacy,' and we absolutely accomplished that today."

On Sept. 4, seven Swamp Fox doctors and med techs from the 169th Medical Group and three South Carolina Army National Guard medics ventured into the tropical rainforest for a community medical support mission.

"This is why we are here," said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Chris Collins, a dentist with the 169th Medical Group. "We have training, we have education, we have gifts that we are able to give back to the community whether at home or here. I always feel like we get more out of it than the people we are helping."

Just getting to Tamana was a challenge. The SCNG medical team, Colombian military and civilian medical personnel and a Medellin television news crew departed the Colombian Air Force base in Rionegro on a Colombian Air Force C-130 Hercules aircraft. After traveling north for an hour, the plane landed at a remote airstrip where everyone boarded Colombian Air Force UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and flew to an elementary school about 20 minutes away.

"It makes you appreciate what you have. And they do seem appreciative for whatever you can do," said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. (Dr.) Vanessa Wideman, a flight surgeon with the 169th Medical Group.

In a few hours, SCNG medical personnel provided dental, optical, dermatology, pharmacy and general medical care to 526 Colombians. It was sort of like déjà vu as Swamp Fox medical personnel conducted a similar medical mission in Missouri in June for Operation Healthy Delta.

"I think it's always a little bit different when you go to another country," said U.S. Air Force Maj. Sean Pitale, an optometrist with the 169th Medical Group. "Especially a poorer country. These are the people who really appreciate this kind of work."

Pitale treated an elderly woman with failing eyesight who blessed him to show her gratitude.

"I guess it's customary in the country a lot of times to bless the provider or bless the doctor when they are getting treated, or at least treated well," Pitale said. "She was nice enough as I spoke to her a little bit to appreciate what we were telling her about her vision."

At the end of a very long day, everyone arrived back in Rionegro tired but in good spirits. 

"The personal rewards far exceed anything I could have ever expected," Latham said. "You just can't measure the rewarding feeling you get when you help people like this."