ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. --
Traveling an hour to work at the crack of dawn on a bumpy road, passing homes with no doors or enclosed walls and people washing themselves at a nearby river, six Reserve Citizen Airmen from Robins Air Force Base knew they weren’t in Middle Georgia anymore.
Lt. Col. Joni Scott-Weideman, Senior Master Sgt. Shanekqua Parker, Tech. Sgt. Amanda Manzie, and Senior Airmen Jamesetta Hinton, Dejah Ingle and Lawren Tucker made up a team of medical professionals from the 413th Aeromedical Staging Squadron who took part in New Horizons this past summer.
New Horizons is an annual series of U.S. Southern Command-sponsored, joint-foreign military exercises in Latin American and Caribbean nations. The exercise’s mission is to provide construction and healthcare services to local communities, while conducting deployment training and strengthening partner-nation relationships.
With an objective to help build three community centers and a women’s shelter, this year’s New Horizons took place in the South American country of Guyana. For many members of the ASTS team, the experience was unlike anything they had ever seen before. One Airman in particular recalled the very first morning they traveled from their campsite to their work facility.
“I think I was overwhelmed and excited at the same time, because I’ve never seen living conditions like that except on National Geographic or some type of movie,” said Tucker, a pharmacy technician. “It was just so surreal for me, and I just thought about everything I would experience when I got to the clinic and all of these people that we’ll have to service and help. And at that moment when we pulled up to the clinic, I knew this was real.”
The Citizen Airmen and other U.S. military medical providers worked alongside host-nation medics and non-government organizations, forming the medical readiness training exercise (MEDRETE) team. The MEDRETE team set up their clinic at a conference center, with handwritten, cardboard signs designating each section.
While there, the MEDRETE team treated more than 9,500 Guyanese patients within a two-week span. The experience of caring for actual patients offered a unique opportunity compared to training at other exercises or back at home station.
“As reservists, we get into doing the same thing every [unit training assembly],” said Ingle, an optometry technician who’s been with the 413th ASTS for approximately two years. “But this is completely different, and you can actually see what part you play in the bigger picture. So even though you give it your all and work your butt off—you’re still tired, dead tired—at the end of it, we’re like, ‘Dang, that was amazing.’”
With temperatures past 100 degrees, the Guyana weather wasn’t forgiving or ideal, and the facility they worked in didn’t have any air conditioning. Though miserably hot, seeing how grateful the Guyanese people were made all the difference and pushed the team to work harder. Hinton, a medic, said she often assisted the optometry section and helped pass out glasses. Some individuals told her they could finally see for the first time in years, which made her want to hand out more glasses. Scott-Weideman, optometrist, shared a similar sentiment.
“So what I think fueled us was their thankfulness and the smiles on their faces,” Scott-Weideman said. “I think that was the best part. You know, when we got to see the little kids that was even better. But people had not seen a doctor in 10 to 15 years, and they were so thankful. It was truly amazing.”
Unfortunately, not every patient encounter ended with a success story. Due to limited equipment and capabilities, the team occasionally came across people they couldn’t help.
Manzie, a medical technician, recalled an incident when a teenage boy passed out while standing in line with his mother. The teenager, who the mother said passed out quite often, ended up being diagnosed with a life-threatening disease that they couldn’t treat.
There were also people with eyesight so bad, they couldn’t work to provide for their families, Scott-Weideman said.
“People were literally blind from cataracts,” she explained. “There’s nothing we can do; no glasses we could give them. It was sad, because we had the capability to do it. It was just that we didn’t have it there. We did refer them back to the local hospital to get cataract surgery, but there’s a two-year wait, so that’s not going to happen. I think for me, that was heart-breaking.”
Because of the heavy demand, many of the reservists accomplished tasks in other career fields, like Tucker who got a chance to work with optometry or Manzie who got a chance to apply dental stitches for the first time while there.
Even the seasoned Parker attested to the idea of flexibility. She said she was the only senior enlisted Airman there and didn’t know she’d be performing superintendent duties until she arrived to Guyana.
“Well, you know, because I’m an old-head now, I’ve got 25 years in,” Parker said. “But this tour … was something I couldn’t even imagine. You have to learn how to adapt and overcome. You can’t complain, because you won’t make it if that’s the mentality you have.”
The ups and downs were eye-opening for many of the Airmen. Hinton said going on the Guyana mission was a humbling experience, one that has made her more grateful for the privileges she has in the United States. But she also said she’d return to Guyana in a heartbeat, even if for other reasons.
“Their food,” she said. “Let me tell you—their food was so good. I’ll tell anybody. I would love to go back to Guyana for the food.”
On occasion, Hinton went on ambulance rides to some of the various construction sites. One of her escorts was a guy who had already been in country for a few months and was familiar with the area, she said. He also knew some of the Guyanese people by name, and they would visit their homes to chat and eat home-cooked meals, something she came to appreciate.
The entire ASTS team volunteered for New Horizons, and they all want to give it another run next year. Prior to the mission, they didn’t know much about each other and some didn’t even recognize names on the team roster when it was first given to them. But throughout the journey, they said they’ve gotten tremendously closer.
“We are all very different,” said Ingle. “We are all very bold individuals with personalities through the roof. It was very easy for any one of us to have a disagreement, but … since we knew the situation we were in and the things we had to go through just to make it to the next day after working so hard, we just set aside differences and we worked together very well. It just became a little Guyana family. This is ours. They can’t tell us about Guyana. This is our thing now.”