Continuing Promise Buenaventura 2015 Brings Smiles, Gratitude
By Dialogo August 03, 2015
After being anchored off the pier of Buenaventura –in Colombia’s northwest Pacific coast– for ten days, the USNS Comfort (T-AH-20) set sail on July 18 to continue its humanitarian mission across the rest of the 11 Latin American and Caribbean nations scheduled in Continuing Promise 2015 (CP-15). For the port city’s 500,000 inhabitants, CP-15 represented free medical attention for roughly 2 percent of the locality’s total population.
Approximately 10,000 medical patients from Buenaventura and its 12 surrounding communes, including Juanchaco, Citronela, La Caucana, and indigenous communities, received treatment ranging from general surgery, optometry, ophthalmology, gynecology, veterinary services, general medicine, dentistry, radiology, plastics, and others from the more than 1,000 military medical experts, Seabees, and NGO volunteers aboard the ship during this year’s mission. While the majority of patients were seen at two medical sites set up in Buenaventura and Juanchaco, patients with more severe afflictions requiring surgery were transported to the Comfort by helicopter. Additionally, volunteer translators from Cali’s Universidad del Valle, which is a good two-hour drive from Buenaventura, worked with each medical practitioner to facilitate communication with the patients.
The humanitarian mission sponsored by the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) –and in the case of Colombia, jointly planned and coordinated by the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá, the Office of Security Cooperation (OSC), the Colombian Navy, and the U.S. Navy– also performed 38 Subject Matter Expert Exchanges (SMEE) by U.S. Navy personnel aboard the hospital ship, nine engineering projects conducted by the U.S. Navy Seabees, nine community relations activities, such as sports programs, equipment donations, local band concerts, murals, and a beach clean-up, among others.
For Commander Cesar Augusto Saavedra, Director of the Colombian Navy’s Acción Integral
[Information Ops., Civil Affairs, and Military Information Support Ops. effort] Division and general coordinator of Continuing Promise Buenaventura 2015, “This operation includes all the planning and execution levels. For the national Navy, in this case the Pacific Naval Force and the Second Marine Brigade which have a strong presence in Colombia’s Pacific, the job that’s being undertaken is very important because it not only strengthens the State’s presence, but also greatly benefits the needs of the civilian population, which is part of our jurisdiction in this part of Colombia.”
For his part, Captain Leonardo Day, Chief of the U.S. Navy Mission at the OSC in Bogotá and lead coordinator for the effort on land, said, “We know that both countries have limited resources, so it makes sense for us to be able to combine these. It’s something that’s bigger than a navy ship visit or a whole of government effort, it’s a whole of society effort, both from Colombia and the U.S. which we’ve really been able to leverage from,” he added.
One example Cdr. Saavedra and Capt. Day discussed is a Colombian government-sponsored Citizen Care Fair held on the day of the mission’s inauguration in Buenaventura. “It was a combined effort in which the Colombian military and security forces provided security, the U.S. had medical personnel providing health benefits, and more than 80 Colombian government agencies provided opportunities to register” and inform the civilian population about state health, education, military, savings, taxes, and energy saving programs, said Capt. Day. “So it’s been not just a Navy-to-Navy effort but a government-to-government effort.”
More than the complex logistics and collaborative aspect of such a huge endeavor, however, are the gratitude and smiles left behind in the small port city. Though the majority of trade with Asia enters and leaves Colombia through Buenaventura, the local population does not always reap many of the economic benefits the trade brings to the country. Prior to the Comfort’s arrival, local agencies screened patients to make sure that the most vulnerable population with no access to any medical services would be the ones benefitting from the Great White Angel’s –as some of the locals have called the hospital ship– services.
Lady Vanessa, for example, a nine-year-old girl with a bright white smile, suffered from stomach parasites, and diligently took her anti-parasitic medicine aptly covered in strawberry jelly by the doctor seeing her when Diálogo
greeted her. “I will be healthy now,” she smiled.
Fifty-one-year-old Ana, who was unable to work because of an affliction to her eyes, was at the coliseum (Medical Site 1) with her mom, 71-year-old Carmen Salas. Both were seen by on-site opthalmologists and optometrists and fitted with brand new glasses that will make “life a little bit easier and a little bit better,” Ana told Diálogo
as her mom thanked the staff who helped them.
For 23-year-old Karen Vallesilla, whose one-month-old baby girl María José was thoroughly checked by the on-site pediatricians and ophthalmologists, “it was all good news.” “They told me she is doing really well; she is healthy,” said the thankful new mom.
U.S. Navy Captain William Todd, Pediatric Orthopedic Surgeon aboard the Comfort and member of its Advanced Command Element (ACE) Team, highlighted the collaborative effort of the monumental mission. “We’re working with existing programs and structures to help bolster some of the public programs out there. We have a lot of conferences or SMEEs that are very important because we exchange ideas and listen to the Colombians talk about how they do things and they listen to how we do things so we can all come together.”
The ACE Team visits each scheduled country site prior to the boat’s arrival in order to coordinate and plan ahead with local government and medical agencies for what to expect once the mission gets underway. “The collaborative effort between the Colombians and the U.S. Navy, the Colombian government and the Secretary of Health here [in Buenaventura] has been absolutely superb, and there is no way that we would have been able to achieve what we achieved without the collaborative effort of everyone in conjunction with the U.S. Embassy-Bogotá overseeing and acting as a liaison,” he expressed.
While the medical providers took care of the people’s health, the Seabees worked with the Colombian Navy on engineering sites to help improve the community life of the local populations and to cement the State’s presence in the area. These included building a new roof and floor for a school in Citronela, a soccer field and playground to bring the youth and overall community of La Caucana together for civic activities in the town’s primary school, and repairing a local health post in Juanchaco so that the locals don’t have to travel long distances to access basic medical care.
The greatest lesson learned, according to Cdr. Saavedra, “is team work powers results. By working independently nobody achieves much. In spite of their capabilities, they can’t do much on their own. And in spite of our very real needs, we can’t do much without them either. Working together, jointly in a coordinated manner is what helps us achieve the best results for the benefit of the civil population, who ultimately is the one that needs it.”