22d MEU (SOC) Provide Assistance to Those in the "Devil's Cauldron"

25 Jun 2002 | Gunnery Sgt. Keith A. Milks

In one of the most impoverished regions in the Central Command area of operations, nothing comes for free. So when a convoy of vehicles from the 22d Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) rolled into a series of remote villages in the east African nation of Djibouti, their arrival was viewed with more than a little suspicion.However, this suspicion did not stop the throngs of locals from flocking to the vehicles as the camouflage-clad Marines and Sailors leapt from the Humvees and quickly set up shop, intent on improving the lives of their temporary hosts through a series of medical and dental civil affairs projects (Med/Den CAPs)."The humanitarian assistance the MSSG (MEU Service Support Group 22) provided ashore was a way to reach out to the Djiboutians and provide them with medical and dental care they normally don't have access to," said Chief Petty Officer Michael C. Norton, of Lake Linden, Michigan, the senior Fleet Marine Force-qualified corpsman in MSSG-22.Norton said he and the medical staff from MSSG-22 visited four Djiboutian villages and towns over a four-day period providing a wide range of medical assistance as other elements of the MEU conduct training at nearby locations."We spent approximately 19 total treatment hours, and the medical personnel treated 535 people and the dental sections treated 35," said Norton, a 20-year Navy veteran.While a Marine security detachment ensured a safe working environment at each site, corpsmen from MSSG-22 would screen potential patients, collecting vital signs and monitoring patient flow toward one of two Navy surgeons, one from MSSG-22 and the other a flight surgeon from Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 261 (Reinforced), the MEU's aviation combat element. "The most common medical conditions we treated were upper respiratory infections, worms and musculoskeletal pain," said Norton.Djibouti is commonly referred to as "The Devil's Cauldron," and it is a desolate, barren land with little water and temperatures that soar far above 100 degrees year-round. The environment is one that creates harsh living conditions for the Djiboutian people and one where disease and sickness thrive.For the MSSG's junior corpsmen and doctors, this was their first experience dealing with this type of medical service, and the Med/Den CAPs were an eye-opener. "These people dream of having what we take for granted everyday," said Hospitalman Samuel Jeffcoat, a Charleston, South Carolina native. "Being here gave me a sense of pride and accomplishment, but also made me thankful. I volunteered to bring something to people they otherwise would have never had and it makes me feel very good to do so."In additional to dealing with the locals' medical ailments, a team of dentists and dental technicians were on hand to provide dental assistance."We provided extractions of decayed teeth periodontal teeth with abscesses," said Navy Lt. Shannon B. Knudson, a dentist from Honor, Michigan. "We also extracted some wisdom teeth that were causing infections and pain for the patients."Hospitalman 3rd Class Fidel J. Martinez, of New York City, echoed the comments of many of the Sailors when he said the language barrier between the medical staff and Djiboutian patients was by far the most difficult aspect of the Med/Den CAPs. To combat this, host nation military officials and local citizens with fluency or even just a working knowledge of English were able to convey patient complaints and the medical staff's responses.In addition to the direct patient care provided, the MEU left the local citizenry with the tools for continued medical care. Not only did the corpsmen, doctors and dentists leave their patients with pearls of wisdom for self-care, but also surplus medical supplies were donated to those villages with pre-existing clinics.Projects such as these medical and dental visits are a key part of the MEU's continuing efforts to engender goodwill between the United States and foreign nations. More profound, though, is perhaps the impact these humanitarian missions have on those who lend a helping hand to those in need."Having four children of my own, it was really something special to me to help the kids feel better," said Chief Norton. "All of us in the medical and dental community are in it because we want to help. We want to take care of people and to be given the opportunity to make a difference leaves us feeling fulfilled."For more information on the 22d MEU (SOC), visit the unit's website at www.22meu.usmc.mil.
22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit