Units of U.S. Army South (ARSOUTH) and the Salvadoran Armed Force (FAES, in Spanish), will work jointly to provide free specialized medical services to rural communities besieged by crime in El Salvador. The first Medical Readiness Training Exercise (MEDRETE), part of U.S. Southern Command’s (SOUTHCOM) Together Forward initiative, took place March 25-April 8, 2019, in the coastal area of Conchagua municipality, La Unión department. The objective of the mission is to assist different Salvadoran populations twice a year for five years.
“We thank SOUTHCOM for joining efforts to assist people with limited resources — many suffering from chronic diseases — and bringing them the medication they need,” said Honduran Army Colonel Juan Guardado, head of Civil Affairs for FAES General Staff. “This exercise will train personnel from both countries to offer medical assistance and health education to communities with limited resources in remote locations.”
In Conchagua, which faces the Gulf of Fonseca, health services are limited and medical personnel lack specialization.
“Most beneficiaries don’t have the financial means to go to a hospital or pay a private clinic and keep their conditions under control,” said Conchagua Mayor Jesús Medina. “That’s why we are grateful to SOUTHCOM and FAES. Our people received top-notch medical assistance, and even patients with serious chronic conditions were cared for.”
The organizers installed a campsite at the Ministry of Health’s Family Health Community Unit to assist residents from Loma Larga, El Volcancillo, and Condadillo districts, as well as Valle Nuevo, Monares, San Ramón, and La Brea villages. About 7,200 people received medical care.
“We had a common goal from the beginning: help the poorest in the country. That helped us work together,” said U.S. Army Sergeant First Class Héctor Nieves, ARSOUTH’s medical team coordinator. “Everyone had a partner from the other country, so we complemented each other with the knowledge we both had.”
During the first days, the combined team conducted a general assessment of both medical and logistics needs. Some of the challenges to overcome were educational barriers and teaching people about hygiene habits to prevent illnesses.
“As days passed, more people signed up for a medical checkup. They couldn’t believe that it was all free,” said Loyda Reyes, head of the Municipal Development Unit of Conchagua. “This serves as a pilot test to identify illnesses that exist in the area, so they can be treated every six months for five years.”
Military specialists identified the main diseases in the area: respiratory tract infections, fungal infections, dermatitis, and bronchitis. “Some 40 percent of the population also suffers from urinary tract infections, due to low hydration and the high temperatures recorded in the village,” said Army Major Humberto Hernández, doctor and head of FAES Military Health Battalion. The team also identified chronic degenerative diseases such as high blood pressure, chronic gastritis, and diabetes.
“The main issue is education, because people don’t know how to maintain a balanced diet or keep hygiene routines that would prevent illnesses or infections,” Sgt. Nieves said. “It was rewarding to assist people who hadn’t seen a doctor in more than a year and treat their illnesses.”
Carlos Morales came from El Jagüey district with his youngest child. The boy had a strong fever, had stopped eating, and drank little water. The family tried to treat him with home remedies to no avail.
“Doctors explained that the child had a severe ear infection. Hence the fever and headaches,” said Morales as he waited for medication. “I am relieved that a doctor examined my son, because we didn’t know what to do to ease his pain.”
Military doctors, 15 from ARSOUTH and 25 from FAES, took part in Together Forward’s first mission. The second exercise will be held in August 2019 in Zacatecoluca municipality in the south. The military will continue to exchange experiences to offer joint humanitarian assistance to communities of hard-to-reach and disadvantaged areas.