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Air Force medics take medical mission to Bolivia

Maj. Scott Shepherd makes a daring attempt to have a Bolivian girl say "Ahhhhh" during a Medical Readiness Training Exercise in Cobija, Bolivia. The major, assigned to the 152nd Medical Group in Reno, Nev., was part of a 30-member medical team in Bolivia treating underserved populations in the country. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Maj. Scott Shepherd makes a daring attempt to have a Bolivian girl say "Ahhhhh" during a Medical Readiness Training Exercise in Cobija, Bolivia. The major, assigned to the 152nd Medical Group in Reno, Nev., was part of a 30-member medical team in Bolivia treating underserved populations in the country. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Lt. Col. Mark Desjardins treats a newborn Bolivian boy during a Medical Readiness Training Exercise in Cobija, Bolivia. A 30-member medical team was in Bolivia treating underserved populations in the country. Colonel Desjardins is assigned to the 143rd Medical Group in Quonset Point, R.I. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Lt. Col. Mark Desjardins treats a newborn Bolivian boy during a Medical Readiness Training Exercise in Cobija, Bolivia. A 30-member medical team was in Bolivia treating underserved populations in the country. Colonel Desjardins is assigned to the 143rd Medical Group in Quonset Point, R.I. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Maj. Scott Shepherd and Senior Airman Felipe Soto treat a 6-month old Bolivian boy who has a fever of 104 degrees during a Medical Readiness Training Exercise in Cobija, Bolivia. The two medics are part of a 30-member medical team in Bolivia treating underserved populations in the country. Major Shephers is assigned to the 152nd Medical Group in Reno, Nev., and Airman Soto is from the 163rd Medical Group. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Maj. Scott Shepherd and Senior Airman Felipe Soto treat a 6-month old Bolivian boy who has a fever of 104 degrees during a Medical Readiness Training Exercise in Cobija, Bolivia. The two medics are part of a 30-member medical team in Bolivia treating underserved populations in the country. Major Shephers is assigned to the 152nd Medical Group in Reno, Nev., and Airman Soto is from the 163rd Medical Group. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Tech. Sgt. Don Evans treats a 5-year old Bolivian girl during a Medical Readiness Training Exercise in Cobija, Bolivia. Sergeant Evans, assigned to the 152nd Medical Group, Reno Nev., was part of 30-member medical team in Bolivia treating underserved populations in the country. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Tech. Sgt. Don Evans treats a 5-year old Bolivian girl during a Medical Readiness Training Exercise in Cobija, Bolivia. Sergeant Evans, assigned to the 152nd Medical Group, Reno Nev., was part of 30-member medical team in Bolivia treating underserved populations in the country. (U.S. Air Force photo)

COBIJA, Bolivia -- U.S. Southern Command officials recently deployed more than 30 Air Force medics to Bolivia to participate in a two-week long Medical Readiness Training Exercise.

Air Force medics, working with Bolivian health officials, provided free medical treatment to underserved populations in Bolivia while gaining invaluable experience and training.

"We are happy to be in Bolivia doing what we love most and that is helping people get better," said Col. Jack Schnurr, the MEDRETE mission commander. "I am very proud of the work we are doing here and hope we can do many more missions like this in the future."

Airmen provided medical care including general medicine, pediatrics, optometry and dentistry. The team came with a medicine cabinet of pharmaceutical drugs costing more than $45,000, while the total cost of this mission more than $150,000.

The team treated more than 1,300 Bolivians in three remote locations. Although medical issues vary from patient to patient, care is consistently needed to treat a number of parasite infections, skin diseases, and life-threatening diseases like abscesses.

"We are seeing things here that could very easily be seen on our deployments into Southwest Asia," Colonel Schnurr said. "Leishmaniasis (a rare skin disease) is endemic in South West Asia, so for us to see similar diseases here gives exposure to some of the (medics) who have not yet deployed."

Along with the added benefits of providing care to the Bolivians and treating foreign illnesses, the team gained a wealth of mobilization experience that started well before arriving and treating their first patient. The team went through the entire pre-deployment process from arranging the logistics, personnel readiness, travel and other deployment processes vital to their success.

A critical component to mission accomplishment included several Spanish translators who are bridging the language gap between patient and doctor.

"This mission would have been severely handicapped had it not been for our team of translators," said Maj. Scott Shepherd, a doctor from the 152nd Air National Guard Unit in Reno, Nev. "Our goal is to reach as many people as possible, and their help is allowing us to do just that."

There is a consistent level of praise from the Bolivians for the care the medical team is providing.

"For my family medical care is expensive, and it is not easily accessible," said Gabriel Solano, a father of four who traveled more than six hours to receive medical care. "This treatment from the doctors from the United States and the free medicine they are providing is going to really help my family."

While there are Airmen from various Air Force units participating in this exercise, the majority of the medical staff come from the 152nd Medical Group and the 163rd Medical Group from March Air Reserve Base, Calif. The team is scheduled to treat 800 more Bolivian patients before the MEDRETE concludes Aug. 2.

U.S. Southern Command sponsors approximately 70 MEDRETEs per year and 12th Air Force and Air Forces Southern, the air and space component to USSOUTHCOM, plan and execute about 30 of these exercises in locations through Central and South America plus additional sites throughout the Caribbean

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