SOUTHCOM Brings New Horizons to Panama

Panamanian communities receive aid during a U.S. Southern Command-sponsored humanitarian campaign.
Roberto López Dubois/Diálogo | 20 June 2018

Capacity Building

U.S. Air Force Captain Charles Hutchings, a pediatrician from the medical operations squadron, gives an explanation to a mother in Metití, in the Panamanian province of Darién, during the 2018 New Horizons humanitarian exercise. (Photo: U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Dustin Mullen)

Panamanian communities in need benefitted from humanitarian assistance provided through a U.S. Southern Command- (SOUTHCOM) sponsored development assistance campaign. The New Horizons 2018 exercise, conducted in coordination with the U.S. Embassy in Panama and the Panamanian government, began April 11th and concludes June 20th.

More than 350 SOUTHCOM personnel, including doctors, engineers, and service members, mobilized to lend a hand in the central provinces of Coclé and Veraguas, as well as Darién, on the border with Colombia. Personnel from the Panamanian Border Service (SENAFRONT, in Spanish), Panamanian government officials, humanitarian organizations, and local medical professionals joined the U.S. troops in a combined interagency effort.

“[The exercise] is very important because it brings integration in addition to other benefits,” said Commissioner Oriel Óscar Ortega, deputy director of SENAFRONT. “The U.S. forces came here to provide assistance, and we also work alongside them to provide the aid.”

New Horizons 2018 had two main focuses: building infrastructure and providing medical and dental care. The purpose of the exercise is to provide help to local communities, train U.S. service members and their counterparts in partner nations, and strengthen their ties of friendship.

“We are very excited to be here,” said U.S. Air Force Captain Rosimar Varela-Gradaille, legal advisor to SOUTHCOM’s air component, Air Forces Southern (AFSOUTH), during the exercise’s opening ceremony in Metití, Darién. “We are going to build schools, set up a center for women’s health, and perform surgeries. In short, thousands will benefit from our presence.”

Medical assistance

The U.S. medical teams, in cooperation with the Panamanian Ministry of Health, conducted two medical readiness training exercises (MEDRETE) and one surgical readiness training exercise (SURGRETE).

The MEDRETE offered consultations and diagnoses in general medicine, dentistry, gynecology, physiotherapy, and pediatrics, as well as veterinary services. The medical team cared for more than 7,000 patients and 1,180 animals.

The SURGRETE was conducted over two weeks in May and focused on otolaryngological and ophthalmological operations. Doctors performed 275 eye surgeries, 40 ear surgeries, while an additional 30 people received hearing aids.

SOUTHCOM doctors and technicians split their time between medical centers in the three provinces, where they became integral members of local healthcare teams to learn about the country’s regulations and standards. This teamwork also allowed doctors to share their knowledge and skills with their Panamanian colleagues.

Doctors from U.S. Southern Command perform eye surgery as part of the 2018 New Horizons exercise in Panama. (Photo: U.S. Embassy in Panama)

“Each day, we sent one doctor to each clinic or hospital. We would show up and work with the doctor in charge. Often times, we even got to pair up with a resident in training, which proved a huge benefit to both sides,” said U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Brian Reese, commander of the AFSOUTH medical operations squadron of New Horizons. “At every step we saw patients together, side-by-side. We discussed cases and learned from each other.”

At the beginning of June, the U.S. military medical personnel kicked off a healthcare workshop with support from the University of Panama’s School of Medicine and the Gorgas Commemorative Institute of Health Studies. The training event on emerging infectious diseases was held in Darién and Panama City, and included a visit to the Panama Canal to learn about and share information on the impact the diseases have on public health.

Improving infrastructure

Infrastructure projects concentrated in the Darién region, where SOUTHCOM service members built a community center, a center for women’s health, and classrooms at three schools. During the deployment, military engineers—from welding specialists to metalworkers and electricians—rotated between the different construction projects to finish them on time.

According to María López de Jaramillo, regional director of the Ministry of Education for the province of Darién, the assistance was a blessing that will improve the quality of education for students. “[New Horizons] improves the quality of our infrastructure and our students’ education,” López said. “For them, it’s life-changing.”

The community center built in the Pinogana district of Darién will give the remote region a wireless connection. Pinogana mayor Jannelle González explained that the center will offer business workshops and other activities for locals.

“We plan to properly maintain, use, and equip this structure as is necessary,” González said. “These are well-executed projects. I’m honored as mayor of this town, and as a resident of Darién, that this exercise has come to our province.”

Decades of assistance

The annual New Horizons exercise began with projects in Panama in 1984. Since then, SOUTHCOM has provided assistance to countries in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. The 2018 exercise marked the seventh time the operation takes place in Panama.

“Each year for the past three decades, we have served throughout Latin America,” said U.S. Air Force Colonel Darren Ewing, commander of the 346th Air Expeditionary Group at AFSOUTH and chief of New Horizons 2018. “Countries ask us to come and we help.”

According to Commissioner Ortega, New Horizon projects were up and ready on time. “We are always grateful to every country who wants to help us, and we too have come to the aid of other countries,” he said. “In this day and age, integration between countries is crucial for their development.”

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