By Senior Airman Stephen Cadette , 30th Space Wing Public Affairs
/ Published November 20, 2007
VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --
In a whirlwind deployment, Tech. Sgt. Jason Conely saw on average one South or Central American country every 10 days. Well, he didn't exactly see each country.
"You get up when it's dark, and travel for one or two hours before sunrise, then you start seeing patients right away for 12 hours, and as soon as you're done you go back to the ship," he said. "So we didn't get to see any of the sights."
The ship he mentioned was the USNS Comfort. The 30th Medical Group radiology technician returned in October from his deployment to a joint mission, offering humanitarian assistance aboard a Navy hospital ship the length of three football fields. Painted hospital-white with red trim, the refurbished oil tanker left port at Norfolk Naval Air Station, Va., in mid-June, stopping in 12 countries for about a week at a time.
The mission, which ended in October, was part of the president's "Advancing the Cause of Social Justice in the Western Hemisphere" initiative, according to a U.S. Southern Command statement. The idea is to promote the image of America in the eyes of the people of South and Central America who are not exposed to the positive side of the American culture.
"If you can put a personal touch on our image, it could change their perception of us," Sergeant Conely said. He was one cog in a medical 500-medic machine which treated nearly 100,000 patients in the four months.
"We did a lot of life changing surgeries," he said. "We fixed club feet so kids could walk, repaired cleft palates, fixed broken bones, and removed tumors."
Three years ago, Sergeant Conely felt tired of busting his own knuckles as an aircraft maintenance technician, so he cross-trained into radiology technology. Now he takes pictures of the insides of people's bodies. During this deployment, he saw up to 100 people a day, he said. With so much practice, he got to the point where he could x-ray a patient in one-and-a-half minutes on his digital field x-ray machine.
While he has been on deployments before, this is the first time he was attached to the Navy. The Comfort traveled along the Caribbean, stopping at Belize and Guatemala, where an 82-year-old woman who walked four days to be seen was among the thousands who were treated.
"Most of the countries we went to have free health care, but you still have to buy the insurance. You might wait months to be seen," Sergeant Conley said.
They crossed the Panama Canal on the Fourth of July, going up and down the Pacific coast providing care to Nicaragua and El Salvador before they took a five-day trip to Peru.
Every time they stopped in a country, the Comfort would anchor miles offshore and the medics took either a boat or a helicopter to land. A typical workday on shore began at 5:30 a.m., when Sergeant Conely and hundreds of others waited for transportation to the site.
"There are times when we may take a boat to shore, a helicopter further inland, and then a van for the final leg of the trip to the site," Sergeant Conely said.
After traveling an hour or more inland, they would set up a field hospital--usually in buildings, but sometimes in tents. At night they returned to the boat.
Sergeant Conely's long days included taking x-rays of all kinds of body parts with a portable field x-ray machine that prints on a crystal plate, and hooks up to a laptop. The x-ray pops on screen immediately so the radiologist can look at it right there. He also used a hand-held unit for ultrasound and trained local providers and technicians on exam procedures.
Sometimes patients needed to be brought on board the Comfort for more intense surgery, and needed to pass a screening for tuberculosis first. Sergeant Conely's x-ray exam determined whether or not they could come onto the ship. Most people were treated in the field. During the five to seven days, thousands of local people crowded to be seen.
"That was the most difficult part of the deployment--crowd control. They'll wind up doing what ever they can to get in," Sergeant Conely said.
The Comfort went to Ecuador after it left Peru. Many times in a country, local doctors would pre-screen patients. Local missionaries would translate. And local armies provided security.
"Every country we went to, we couldn't have armed American security. Every site was secured by the national police," he said. In Haiti, things turned ugly.
"They warned us that these people would kill you to take your drugs and equipment and try to sell it. The locals started to push through the gates at an off site clinic and we all ran up to the roof. We thought they were all going to get through. We were forty-five minutes from our landing zone. There were no other Americans, we had no weapons, all I had was my pocket knife, we can't speak the language and we can't blend in. There's no one with a cell phone. There was nothing we could do," he said.
Sergeant Conely and the others waited and watched as Haitian guards beat their own people back, pushing them through the gate until it calmed down. The situation was just as tense in Columbia. In both countries, U.S. military receive hazardous duty pay. While his own safety was at risk, Sergeant Conely saw how desperate the locals were for help.
"In Haiti, mothers would carry their babies over their heads while waiting to be seen, because people were so packed together the babies would suffocate," he said. "All you could see were heads, you couldn't see bodies."
Every morning in Haiti, Sergeant Conely saw three children collect water from a ditch. The two boys, no older than 8, and a girl around 5, knelt at the water's edge, dredging plastic bottles through the dirty water and fill a green bucket to take home.
"It's one of these things that really sticks out at you, makes you realize how poor a country is," he said.
After Haiti, the Comfort went hundreds of miles south to the island of Trinidad off the coast of Venezuela, then to Guyana and finally to Suriname before heading home.
"Out of all of them, Guyana was my favorite. They didn't have enough hours on the helicopters to take people back to the boat, so some of us stayed the night at a hotel. Nice compared to the ship," he said.
Living on the ship was also difficult. Getting from the ship to land could be extremely dangerous. During rough seas, one woman lost fingers when they got caught between the life boat the transport boat she was trying to board.
Another thing that is hard is being out of sight of land for so long.
"You begin to wonder what would happen if the ship sank," Sergeant Conely said. You think 'how long can I tread water for?'"
At sea, the Internet is unreliable and satellite phones are expensive, so Sergeant Conely would sometimes go a week without hearing from home. The mail system was so unreliable that two of Sergeant Conely's care packages never arrived. When the ship was underway, there was nothing to do besides run drills and hold cleaning parties. There was barely enough space to stretch out in a stuffy, enclosed bed the size of a coffin.
But he said the hardest part wasn't living on the ship; it was leaving people behind on land who couldn't be helped--to see them after the doctor told them that there is nothing that could be done to save their lives. Many people were turned away when the medics couldn't stay long enough to provide follow-up care.
"A guy in Guyana had a cut on his leg. For years he was given antibiotic capsules and told to break them open and sprinkle them on the wound. The wound was all gangrene, and he looked like he would lose his leg. He would need antibiotics and a lot of follow up care to save the leg. Unfortunately, we couldn't do that for him. It was hard on a lot of people when there was nothing we could do for them."
"It definitely makes me appreciate America more. You can gripe about taxes, health care, the price of gas, or you can't buy a house and you're forced to rent. A lot of people down there don't know what health care is. They don't know the price of gas because they don't own a car. Their houses are half-built. We have it good. We definitely have it good."
His experiences on the Comfort reaffirmed one of Sergeant Conely's life perspectives.
"You learn you don't have to have all the niceties to have a good life. Those people in Central America were a good example of that. They have nothing, but they are still happy."
Sergeant Conely can't say he has seen much of the 12 countries he visited. But he has seen the sun rise above the Andes Mountains in Peru. And he's seen whales come up to the transport boat in Columbia. Most of all, he's seen how his efforts in service to his county have made a positive difference in the lives of thousands of people, and how an American effort of goodwill may have improved its relationship with its Central, South American and Caribbean neighbors.