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Soto Cano team responds to Peru earthquake

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Sonny Cohrs
  • Joint Task Force-Bravo Public Affairs
Approximately 30 Soldiers and Airmen departed here Aug. 17 in support of relief efforts following the Aug. 15 earthquake near Lima, Peru.

The task force, composed of a Mobile Surgery Team, communications specialists and a small security detail, departed the base aboard a C-130J assigned to the Maryland Air National Guard. The aircraft was the first of two scheduled to fly relief missions from Soto Cano.

"They said, 'an earthquake happened and we need you in Peru,'" said Tech. Sgt. Will Morales, a loadmaster assigned to Maryland ANG's 135th Airlift Squadron, based in Baltimore.

Sergeant Morales and the rest of his crew were in the theater making supply runs from Puerto Rico to Honduras when their mission was diverted to support the relief effort.

Medics from Soto Cano's Medical Element, or MEDEL, deployed with a Mobile Surgery Team that is capable of setting up within a few hours of arriving in Peru. The MST brings with it all necessary equipment and personnel to conduct up to seven surgeries back to back upon arrival.

"We can get our equipment set up in an hour and a half to two hours, and two hours after we arrive, we can see our first patient," said Tech. Sgt. Shelby Hatch, a scrub technician deployed to Soto Cano from Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.

Maj. Paul Valdez, deployed here from Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., said the valuable training the military has provided throughout his career has prepared him for events such as this.

"It's the reason we're here so we can support our host nations with our expertise and our capabilities," he said. "This is what I've trained for my whole career (and) I'm very excited to be a part of this."

Army Lt. Col. Robert Rush, deployed from Madigan Army Medical Center at Fort Lewis, Wash., has had similar experience in Bosnia and Afghanistan, but said this will be his first disaster relief mission.

"Our team is designed to do life and limb-saving operations," he said. "We can't do very specialized surgeries, but we can stabilize patients so they can be treated later. This is what we're here for."

The task force is slated to be on the ground for approximately three days, although their stay may be extended by U.S. Southern Command. Members of the team said they while it's an unfortunate situation for the country of Peru, they are glad to help any way they can.

"You're not fully prepared for something like this until you're in the middle of it," said Army Lt. Col. Ed Zarzabal, commander of the deployed task force. "To be able to help someone in need like this is priceless."

The Medical Element's primary mission is to provide health service support and mobile surgical teams to U.S. Forces deployed in the U.S. Southern Command area of responsibility. As the only continuous U.S. Military Health presence in Central America, the Medical Element also provides emergency and routine medical treatment and support for all DoD Health Care beneficiaries in the AOR, supports all humanitarian and civic assistance, disaster relief, and personnel recovery missions within the AOR and reinforces regional international cooperation through SOUTHCOM missions.

"As the only forward-deployed task force in Central America, we are uniquely positioned to respond to contingencies in Central and South America," said Lt. Col. Howard Jones, Joint Task Force-Bravo deputy commander. "This earthquake was a tragedy, but Joint Task Force-Bravo is ready and willing to help with recovery efforts however we are needed."

Soto Cano Air Base is home to Joint Task Force-Bravo, which supports U.S. interests in Central America by building regional cooperative security, developing military roles and missions, supporting the National Counterdrug Strategy, and exercising combined forces.

Soto Cano is located near the city of Comayagua, Honduras, and is co-located with the Honduran air force's Palmerola Air Base.