CENTRAL COMMAND AREA OF OPERATIONS -- Children and adults alike gathered at the dock and awaited the arrival of the Landing Craft Utility as it slowly approached the rocky, deteriorating pier. Soon, the end of the pier was populated by a small assortment of U.S. Marines and Sailors as the LCU inched its way toward the small, dilapidated dock. The profile of the USS TRENTON was silhouetted against the early morning horizon, from which the LCU began its journey.
As the front gate of the LCU opened and several desert camouflaged Marines and Sailors walked onto the pier, the international symbol of the Red Cross emblazoned across a camouflage ambulance was clearly visible. If the intentions of the strange craft were unclear to the small throng of townspeople watching the procession, it was now clear that the medical and dental staff of the WASP Amphibious Ready Group and the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) team had landed, and many of their health and wellness problems would soon be well in hand.
While Marines and Sailors were completing training on one of the local ranges in an undisclosed location in the Middle East, MEU Service Support Group-22 had an opportunity to complete a few tasks of their own spearheading a Medical and Dental Civil Affairs Project (MEDCAP/DENCAP) in a local community.
The humanitarian assistance mission was conducted in a town whose surrounding areas comprised roughly of 4,000 people. Lt. Col. John Lopez, MSSG-22 Commanding Officer, coordinated the project while Capt. Ivan Kasanof and Navy Lt. Tracey Stefanon oversaw and directed the execution of the mission. Kasanof acted as the HA officer-in-charge while Stefanon ran the medical aspect of the mission.
"This was my first HA mission," said Stefanon, an Orland Park, Ill., native. "I think it went pretty well."
The idea behind the project was to offer people of the town and the surrounding district the opportunity to receive medical and dental attention they otherwise would not have had access to.
"Sometimes they have access to care but they don't always have the meds," commented Stefanon. "Much of that help came from the (MEU) command element for getting the meds."
At one point, the crowd at the clinic became so large from people who just wanted to see the Americans, that the clinic courtyard needed to be cleared in order to make room for those who were clearly sick.
The MSSG detachment included a medical team, dental team and a maintenance team. When they came ashore, the team linked up with a Marine civil affairs detachment and a Navy explosive ordnance disposal team that had arrived in the town a few days prior to ensure the groundwork established earlier was still intact.
"This was an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of people whose lives are well below our own standard of living," shared Gunnery Sgt. Mark Goodnight, a civil affairs chief who calls Fredericksburg, Va., home. "It really opened my eyes on what work still needs to be done to help our fellow human beings."
Stefanon's medical team, which included Marines and Sailors from each major support element of the MEU as well as sailors of the WASP-ARG, set up six rooms, from which to treat patients; two general rooms, one specific to women, two for pediatrics, and one set aside for the dentists. In addition, a local doctor flew in to assist in the effort. Translators provided by the local military, as well as the MEU, were present to help in translating the ailments and issues of the patients to the medical teams.
"We saw plenty of kids," stated Stefanon. "The people were much more forthcoming than we thought."
The clinic's supervisors, a doctor and a dentist who were also married to each other, helped facilitate where they could make treating and communicating with the populace easier for the detachment.
The people who came to see these 'doctors in tan' had a variety of ailments that they hoped could be treated by the Americans.
"By far many of the problems we saw stemmed from malnutrition," explained Stefanon. "Though, we did see some strange skin infections."
The dentists, who also brought their own chairs, only had the capability to conduct extractions. Many of their patients had grossly decayed teeth caused by lack of regular care and hygiene but also had great bone density and tooth structure which indicated that overall they were in pretty good shape.
"It's great to give care to people who have no access," shared Lieutenant Commander Kenneth Leahy, a dentist from Scotchplains, N.J. "They were happy that someone was there to take care of them."
The contact team conducted maintenance at the clinic by fixing gates around the area. On the second day, they conducted maintenance on vehicles that belonged to the local military.
"This is the stuff that I would see in the movies but would never expect to do in real life," said Sgt. Danny Mullins, a motor transport mechanic from Clintwood, Va., while assisting in welding the door of a clinic gate back to its hinges. "I'm happy that we had an opportunity to do this."
By the end of the second day, a tremendous crowd of people flocked to the clinic to catch a glimpse of the departing Sailors and Marines. Once the HA team met the LCU to take them back to the ship, children again watched the Marines depart from the pier, some perhaps wondering when the Marines would return. The force had seen over 500 people and extracted over 40 teeth.
"I enjoyed it. It feels like home," shared Dental Technician 3rd Class Antonio Iglesia who hails from the Bronx, N.Y. "It's interesting how much alike we are. They have the same diversity in personalities as we do at home."
For additional information regarding the 22nd MEU (SOC), visit our website at www.22meu.usmc.mil