By Senior Airman Wendy Kuhn, 121st Air Refueling Wing
/ Published September 21, 2016
RICKENBACKER AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Ohio -- Service members from the Ohio Army National Guard Medical Detachment and the Ohio Air National Guard Medical Group participated with members of the Serbian Armed Forces in a Combined Medical Engagement from Sept. 4, 2016 to Sept. 17, 2016 in various locations throughout southeast Serbia. The purpose of the engagement was to provide humanitarian assistance by the combined medical teams to the Serbian civilians in the regions, build a working relationship between the Serbian Armed Forces' and Ohio National Guard's medical teams and lay the groundwork for a future relationship with the Angolan Armed Forces.
Personnel, consisting of 31 Serbian Armed Forces members, 25 Ohio guardsmen and three observers from the Angolan Armed Forces, set up clinics in local schools in eight villages in southeast Serbia to bring much needed healthcare and healthcare education to the residents in each area. 3,364 examinations were performed on 1,890 patients in the areas of: Triage, Internal Medicine, Pediatrics, Dentistry, Orthopedics, Gynecology, Ophthalmology, Otolaryngology and a Preventative Medicine mobile team.
The engagement was part of the National Guard State Partnership Program, which couples state National Guard units with a partner country in order to help improve bilateral relations with the United States. The Ohio National Guard is partnered with Hungary and the Republic of Serbia.
"About every state has a partnership with another country," said Army Maj. Brad Kennedy, Operations Officer, Ohio Army National Guard Medical Detachment. "Ohio is lucky enough to have a partnership with Serbia and we just recently celebrated the 10-year anniversary of that partnership."
One of the main objectives for conducting the CME in Serbia was ultimately to get boots on ground in Angola, said Kennedy.
"AFRICOM [U.S. Africa Command] is working on developing operations in the African states and when they understood that Ohio had a partnership with Serbia and Serbia had a partnership with Angola, they asked us to capitalize on that relationship," said Kennedy. "We asked the Serbians to spearhead an exercise to build the relationship between Angola and the Ohio Guard centered on humanitarian assistance for the civilian population."
"The exercise has been excellent - people have been very willing to come get examinations," said Maj. Igor Djukic, Medical Services Training Center, Serbian Armed Forces. "Our purpose was to help the people and I think they recognize that."
Air Force Master Sgt. Donald Diller, Public Health NCOIC, 178th Wing Medical Group, served on the Preventative Medicine mobile team. The Preventative Medicine team was responsible for visiting sites within each village, such as the post office, the infirmary, various community buildings and the homes of residents, and address or report issues they encountered. Issues reported included pest infestations and sewer or water supply issues.
Diller recalled a visit to an elderly resident's home in the village of Reljan.
"The first home we visited belonged to an elderly woman whose sister had recently died and had no other family to look after her," said Diller. "She just started talking and our guide said she probably had no one to talk to. So even just being involved and offering that human element and human interaction is probably beneficial."
Many village residents who came to the event to be examined were being seen for the first time in their lives.
Tech. Sgt. William McConaha, Ophthalmology technician, 121st Air Refueling Wing, noted approximately half of the people seen by the ophthalmologist were doing so for the first time in their lives.
Working with the Serbian military also served to fortify the working and personal relationships between members to benefit future operations.
"From day one, our relationship with the U.S. military is improving. Every day it's getting better and better," said Djukic.
"I think this will be an advantage for future engagements," said Army Col. Christopher Coulson, physician, Ohio Army National Guard Medical Detachment. "If we go to Angola together, it will definitely be an advantage that we've already formed this relationship and have been working together."
Air Force Col. Thomas Sodeman, Medical Group Commander, 180th Fighter Wing, said the mission was an exercise in both multinational operations and joint service operations because not only were Ohio National Guard members interacting with the Serbian military, but they were interacting with different services as well.
"In addition to being a great humanitarian service, this mission provides invaluable training for when our soldiers deploy to perform these same missions in austere environments," said Army Col. Kevin Edwards, family nurse practitioner, Ohio Army National Guard Medical Detachment. Col. Edwards was the senior official for the Ohio Guard during the mission.
The operation not only aided in building the relationship between U.S. and Serbian Armed Forces, exercised deployment operational capabilities and provided humanitarian assistance to the civilian population in the region; it forged the beginning of a relationship with the Angolan Armed Forces,.
"It has been eye-opening for both the Serbians and for us," said Kennedy. "I think we come out of this with a lot of lessons learned and I'm hoping as our partnership continues, we can have continued, maybe deeper, medical engagement efforts in the future."