One Day in Betania

Part IX in a multi-part series about Operation Continuing Promise
(Use RedState Tag Operation Continuing Promise for all previous entries)  Regularly Updated Photostream Here

0500: Alarm clock goes off.

0515: Dressed and in the Wardroom for breakfast. Groggy. Coffee. Eggs freshly scrambled by the short-order cook with mushrooms, tomatoes, peppers, onions, and cheese. Five strips of bacon. French toast. Coffee. Malaria pill with tall glass of water.

0600: Muster in the hangar bay. Get into the right line to make sure I get on the right helo to get to the right site. Once I’m checked in and in the right line I can lie down and get some more shut eye.

0700: Move from hangar bay up personnel ramp toward the flight deck.

0715: Lie down on the ramp and doze again.

0745: Board helo. It’s hot, noisy, and rattling. If you sit in the wrong seat you get hydraulic fluid dripping on you. (But hydraulic fluid dripping isn’t a bad thing because if it’s not dripping, that means it has run out of fluid, which is a far-worse problem) We put on the life preserver and “cranial” — the helmet with hearing protection — in the personnel ramp. This is actually early for boarding the helo. Usually I don’t get onto a helo until 0900 or later.

0810: Touch down in Betania and walk the short distance to the village from the LZ. The medical team had arrived on an earlier helo and things are already in full swing. The line is long, the pharmacy is setup, one of the generators is malfunctioning, I quickly sweat through my outer shirt. Betania lies inland about 7 miles from the shore in the lowlands beyond the high area along the coast where Puerta Cabezas sits. The low-lying nature of this area makes for less of a breeze and more water — a combination that my Ohio temperament doesn’t appreciate. I had been able to keep my outer long-sleeved shirt on for most of the day in Puerta Cabezas. I’d have sweat through it by 2PM, but I would generally still have it on. In Betania, with less breeze and more humidity, I was down to my t-shirt by 0900.

I take stock of the village. The The children are generally barefoot. Many wear shirts with American sports team logos or American clothing company names on them — I don’t think they paid what your or I would pay at the mall for these. There is a dirt road that goes past the village, and judging by the only vehicles we see drive by, brightly-painted buses filled to capacity and with more perched on top, it is a main road. But there are no roads within the village — no need, because there are no cars and not enough people to justify taxis. It’s hot. Palm trees laden with coconuts are everywhere.

0820: Captain Ian Thornton, a Canadian Army dentist, is the only dentist in Betania. He has already seen two patients and is just sitting down for his third. He has two dental chairs and works on one while the nurse prepares the other.

0900: Veterinarian station is up and running. People are beginning to bring their cows, chickens, pigs, any of the dogs running around that they can grab, goats, ducks, and even a monkey. The flow is fairly steady all day. Some kids — many younger than 10 — return multiple times carrying more chickens or dragging a squealing pig by a foot. Some of these kids probably only barely outweigh the pig they carry.

A man arrives with a rather feisty bull. It is tied tight to a pole. A man grabs it by the septum with a vice grip-like locking pincers to control it. The bull is not happy about this. The veterinarians, US Army Captain Ellen Landis and US Public Health Services Commander Gregory Langham, move in and quickly give the bull the series of immunization shots. The bull is released and scampers angrily away, snorting and shaking its head. A number of cows are brought over throughout the day but none as ill-tempered as that one. One they get on its side. CDR Langham gets a leg on its neck and pins it down while the owner grabs its rear legs — after many tries; the animal is not taking kindly to this arrangement — and binds them so CPT Landis can administer the shots. This tent becomes the spectacle of the day. Even people who don’t have animals to be treated come and watch the vets and vet techs do their work.

0930: The COMREL team is picking up where yesterday’s team left off. Yesterday’s team set up a couple of soccer goals on the field we are currently using as an LZ and began digging the holes for the basketball hoop poles. This team digs the holes deeper and sets the poles. They’re almost plumb, set in concrete, and the team set some diagonal pieces to pin it in place as the concrete dries. Tomorrow’s team will mount the backboards and hoops and teach the kids how to play.

1000: I wander into the medical clinic. Families are sitting with doctors and translators. The most problematic element of this enterprise is translation. The vast majority of the people speak a dialect called “Miskito,” which is a combination of Spanish, a native language, and English. A doctor is examining a man’s back for the cause of pain. Nearby, in the same room, Navy Optometrist LT Cosby examines a woman’s eyes. A few minutes later he has her trying on different pairs of prescrition reading glasses and looking at a card with words and pictures on it. Through the translator he asks her which pair makes things more clear. She had been apprehensive during the examination, but her demeanor changes when she begins trying on the glasses — now she’s more relaxed and even smiling a little.

Just beyond the optometrist area the pharmacists arranged their small pharmacy. It possesses an impressive array of pills, ointments, liquids of all sorts. They have every type of antibiotic, pain reliever, first aid supplies, allergy medications, and so much else.

1030: I noticed the town’s water supply. It’s a well with a wooden box above it and buckets nearby. The kids lower the bucket, draw the water out, and drink directly from the 3-gallon buckets. I pull out my camera to snap some photos of the well. This elicits the regular lineup of kids who want their picture taken.

1045 A woman comes by the veterinarian station with a pet monkey on a rope. It’s name is Pancho and he’s as calm as can be. CDR Langham puts the immunization serum on a piece of bread and holds it out for Pancho. Pancho quickly takes the bread and chomps it down. The public affairs photographer and I snap a whole bunch of pictures of Pancho.

1100: I had crouched down to snap some photos and stood up too quickly. I didn’t faint, but was close. I had been sucking down the water — every site is well-stocked with bottled water — but apparently not enough. I went over, grabbed another bottle, and opened my MRE. Just what I needed: I had meatballs in marinara sauce with a piece of wheat bread that day. Others followed my lead and sat down to an early lunch. The 3,000 calorie, high-carb meal did the trick; I was fine. In this heat and humidity dehydration and heat exhaustion can creep up on you quickly.

1130: I notice a bunch of kids under one tent with HM1 Adelina Luna standing in front of them. I go over. A dental hygienist is administering a fluoride treatment to all the kids and Luna is assisting with little cups of water as the kids wait for the treatment to set in. She demonstrates sipping the water, swishing it around for 30 seconds, then spitting. It really was a neat thing to watch, the kids all grouped together, watching and imitating, all swishing the water at the same time, some spitting sooner than they were supposed to.

1200: By this point the COMREL team had finished what they had come to do with the basketball posts. The soccer balls came out and about 15 local kids along with six or seven of the COMREL sailors conglomerated in an open area near the medical clinic and began kicking, heading, and kneeing the ball up the air, chasing it when it strayed away, and kicking it back. This continued up until we left.

LTjg Paige Butler, a feisty intelligence officer who came ashore as part of the COMREL team, was a lead instigator of the soccer gaggle. At one point when she had taken a water break from soccer she decided to chase a pig wandering nearby. The pig grunted and squeaked and ske-daddled away, with Butler trailing momentarily. She didn’t catch the poor beast but had fun terrorizing it.

1330: The day’s work is done and cleaned up. Seventy-five people came through the optometry clinic and 52 pairs of glasses were given out. Fifteen patients sat in the dentist’s chair and 26 teeth were extracted; the dental hygienist, Canadian Sgt. Arsenault, did 9 cleanings.

I took the opportunity to ask the Officer in Charge for the day, US Navy Commander John King, himself a doctor, his thoughts for the day. He said the whole endeavor was a great learning experience for the doctors because they had a chance to see diseases and medical conditions in stages far advanced from anything we see in the States — people simply don’t wait this long to seek medical treatment in America, while here they have no choice. He said they doctors had the opportunity to learn the techniques the natives use to deal with certain tropical diseases like malaria and dengue fever that we just don’t worry about in the States.

1345: The first CH-153 lands in the LZ and takes the first group back to the ship. I’m in the third group and we end up waiting until 1530 for our ride out. In the meantime some of the sailors continue kicking the ball around — they don’t get a chance to get off the ship much, so they’re taking advantage of it, oppressive heat or no. Some of us are sitting under the shelter used for the clinic entrance line. The COMREL sailors talk about the day a bit and it is clear the experience has had an effect on them. I didn’t pull out my recorder or write notes lest I affect their candid speaking, but the gist of it was what one could expect — amazement at how these people live and happiness that they were able to come out and do this. Sure, they were happy to get off the ship and into a tropical country, and the change of pace from the humdrum life of doing one’s job on the ship was welcome, but as Chaplain O’Bannon and I discussed, the simple exposure to such a different way of life cannot not have an effect.

Some kids walk over to LTjg Butler and ask her through gestures to come play more soccer. The language barrier is no barrier at all in the international language of sports participation. Butler smiles and indicates that she can’t — she’s worn out and we’re leaving very soon.

1530: Our bird finally arrives and we board, likely never to return to Betania. We wave at the kids one last time and take off toward the horizon.