2012-05-04

Colombian Military, U.S Army Civil Affairs Team Up to Help Colombian Residents

Dr. Catalina del Portillo, a volunteer ophthalmologist, conducted eye surgery on a patient suffering from cataracts during the SURGCAP in La Macarena, Colombia. (Department of Defense photo by Sgt. 1st Class Alex Licea, Special Operations Command South Public Affairs)

Dr. Catalina del Portillo, a volunteer ophthalmologist, conducted eye surgery on a patient suffering from cataracts during the SURGCAP in La Macarena, Colombia. (Department of Defense photo by Sgt. 1st Class Alex Licea, Special Operations Command South Public Affairs)

Sgt. 1st Class Alex Licea, U.S. Army

In the town of La Macarena, located 170 miles south of Bogotá, medical services are scarce for residents.

Located in the department of Meta, the town can only be accessed by air travel. La Macarena is surrounded by farms and far from several of the country’s main cities.

In order to support the town’s residents, the Colombian Military, with support from a group of U.S. Army Civil Affairs Soldiers and a Bogotá-based nongovernment medical organization called “Patrulla Aérea Civil colombiana” or PAC, conducted a Surgical Civic Action Program on April 27-28.

Commonly referred to as a SURGCAP, this type of event is carried out in order to improve the quality of life of citizens and provide them with medical services.

Colombian soldiers provided security around the area, while doctors and medical staff from PAC, with the assistance of U.S. CA Soldiers, currently under the operational control of Special Operations Command South (SOCSOUTH), based at Homestead, Fla., provided free medical care and general surgery services to more than 1,000 Colombian citizens during the event. SOCSOUTH is the special operations component for U.S. Southern Command.

Throughout the two-day SURGCAP, hundreds of people received free medical attention in a hospital and nearby school in La Macarena. Services included pediatrics, dermatology, general medicine, optometry, ophthalmology, dentistry, and general surgery to remove or correct ailments such as hernias, cataracts, and a non-cancerous benign tumor that develops from fat cells in the body, known as lipoma.

“When we plan events like this, we meet with our task force and members of the U.S. Embassy to determine which regions need these types of services,” said Colombian soldier, 1st Lt. Diego Mauricio Quintero Franco, who served as an operations officer during the event. “We are here to bring solutions to some of the health problems in this community and show people we care about them.”

PAC was founded more than 40 years ago by a group of search and rescue pilots. It is an organization of volunteer doctors and pilots who provide medical services to several secluded communities across Colombia. They have been working with the U.S. Military for the past 10 years.

Dr. Adriana Piquero Echeverri, who serves as the general director for PAC, said the organization’s mission is to provide medical care to those who need it in the most isolated locations in the country.

“Our organization is based around helping people who don’t have access to this type of medical care across remote locations in the country,” she said. “We have a great relationship with the U.S. Civil Affairs members and without their support this medical event would have not been possible.”

For Carlos Lopez, this event couldn’t have come at a better time. The middle-aged man has not been able to work because of pain and discomfort. Suffering from an inguinal hernia, which forms in a person’s lower abdomen, Lopez has been unable to work for three years. This SURGCAP was the answer he had been waiting for.

“I am very happy for the services I am receiving,” he said. “We are very poor people, so we can use all the help we can get. I am grateful for this day and all those who are helping us.”

U.S. troops assigned to the Civil Affairs team, based out of Fort Bragg, N.C., have been working with their Colombian partners for the past eight months. The working relationship between the two has established two substantial benefits. The first is to help plan events like this and assist with the purchase of medicine and basic medical supplies. The second is to continue to enhance the capacity of the Colombian Military and show them the positive effects of working with different government and civilian agencies.

“By working with the Colombian Military, and several municipal government leaders, we can all come together and make events like this happen,” said the senior U.S. CA planner.

By the end of the second day, more than 1,000 citizens received medical screenings and more than 150 general surgeries were conducted by the medical volunteers working for PAC.

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