By George O'Brien, Foreign Affairs Officerm, US Army Pacific
/ Published April 10, 2007
HICKAM AIR FORCE BASE, Hawaii -- At first it was just a trickle of country folks, but soon a steady procession formed on the narrow, dusty roads dotted with elaborate ancestral tombs and massive water buffalos. People on foot were soon overtaken by rickety bicycles, and noisy motorbikes. By 0700, a huge crowd packed the courtyard outside the spartan clinic building. Propelled by television, newspapers and word of mouth, the excitement had spread far and wide: American medical personnel had returned to help the Vietnamese people.
A tri-service, civilian-military project, called the Aloha Medical and Civil Engineering Partnership for Health Mission, was conducted March 07 in and around the ancient Imperial City of Hue. Over three thousand disadvantaged people living in Central Vietnam benefited from a blend of warmth, compassion and respect traditionally found in the Hawaiian Islands. During this mission, American medical personnel (both military and civilian) worked together with Vietnamese counterpart to serve the people of Hue. The banner which hung over the hospital and clinic with American and Vietnamese flags placed side-by-side is a sign of reconciliation from a war of not too distant past.
This humanitarian assistance effort was funded by US Pacific Command as a high priority Asia-Pacific Regional Initiative. It was planned and executed as a first-ever joint venture by US Army Pacific (USARPAC), Pacific Air Forces (PACAF), 624 Regional Support Group (624 RSG), and two Non-Governmental Agencies: The East Meets West Foundation (EMWF) based in Vietnam and the Aloha Medical Mission (AMM) based in Hawaii.
The mission was large and complex. It focused on capacity and relationship building, free medical and dental care, and providing educational materials, medical supplies, and donation of clothing and toys to local orphanages. Medical care was provided by a 32 member team consisting of Surgeons, Primary Care Physicians, Preventive Medicine and Biomedical Specialists, Dentists and Hygienists, Nurses, Civil Engineers, and support personnel. In addition, a 13-member dental team was provided by EMWF.
Mrs. Thanh-Lo Sananikone, a native of Hue now living in Honolulu and mission leader for AMM, indicated that the local people appreciated how special emphasis was directed at meeting the needs of underserved communities; especially boat people living along the Perfume River. Mrs. Sananikone relayed comments from local officials on how happy they were to see the US team, that it was nice to see the US [Military] uniform again, and she was asked we would be coming back. Maj Kinsey McFadden, a medical planner from USARPAC, stressed how the American team benefited from the mission by having an opportunity to work in a high demand environment, under austere conditions, and in close collaboration with both active and reserve military forces and civilian volunteers from NGOs.
Extensive services were provided at seven separate locations in and around Hue. The overall mission commander, Lt. Col Mylene Huynh (PACAF), emphasized that the civilians and military quickly formed an effective team, pitched in to do a myriad of tasks they don't normally do at home, and put in long hours to treat over 3000 patients and perform 5000 procedures during a hectic, but rewarding five day period.
Care was provided at the existing Thuong Lac Humanitarian Dispensary in Hue and temporary clinics established in two nearby villages. A dental clinic was set up by CAPT Fritz Craft (USPHS) at a local orphanage and many boat children were brought in by vans for extractions, fillings, and sealings. At Benh Vien Trung Uong Hue (Hue Central Hospital), joint US-Vietnamese teams exchanged info on the latest medical and surgical techniques in areas of cardio-thoracic surgery, interventional cardiology, ENT, emergency medicine, ophthalmology, orthopedics, general surgery, in-patient nursing, and biomedical repairs. US personnel also performed numerous operations to include open heart surgery and facial reconstruction.
Mr. Paul Strona, a Aloha Medical Mission volunteer who had paid his own way from Honolulu, singled out the productive work of a 624 RSG CE team who partnered with local villagers to rebuild a latrine, repair classroom floors and establish water lines at two elementary schools. He stressed how large crowds of school children had come to observe the work and how the Vietnamese and Americans used hand tools to perform excavations and pour concrete in sweltering heat and high humidity. He went on to say that over $150,000 of privately donated medical supplies and instruments were provided to the Hue Central Hospital, and four orphanages received badly needed clothing, dental hygiene kits, toys and educational material.
The mission was actively supported by a wide range of Vietnamese health professionals and private individuals. Their help was essential as they facilitated coordination with local officials, served as doctors, nurses, and translators and assisted with setting up facilities and crowd control. Many local medical students also volunteered to be part of a "One Team" approach to patient treatment. They expressed great surprise at seeing themselves participating in the mission on Vietnamese television. Many commented on how happy they to see how the Americans were able to identify dozens of patients with serious medical conditions and coordinate with local NGOs to get further evaluation and treatment at no cost to the patient.
Dr. Doan Tran, a volunteer from Virginia, related how he had the good fortune of treating a former South Vietnamese Airborne Division comrade during the mission and been able to secure support for his war-related disability from a Vietnamese-American organization in the United States. His whole family was involved with the mission as his gracious wife Nhon ran our Pharmacy and his energetic daughter Bambi (a former Peace Corps volunteer) applied her expert building construction skills to the CE team.
COL Dwight Shen, an Army reservist from California, indicated that the US team benefited by being exposed to the use of traditional medicines and herbs. He also stressed that the way a country treats wounded people on the battlefield has lasting impressions. He relayed meeting a patient who sustained significant battlefield injury while serving with the Viet Cong in the 1970s. At that time, she was transported to an US Mobile Army Surgical Hospital where she received treatment by American doctors. She recalled the kind attention and respect that American doctors provided during her hospitalization even though she was an "enemy combatant." The experience left a long lasting positive impression of Americans and it brought her to tears to see American doctors in uniform back to provide medical care to the people of Vietnam.
Injuries suffered during the war are endured for many years; but medical mission such as this one can bring hope and healing to alleviate the visible scars caused by the trauma of war. As in the case of Ms. Phan Thi Phuc, who in 1975, at the tender age of 10, was with her family in Qui Nhon when bombs struck, instantly killing her uncle and a younger sister. Ms. Phuc completely lost her nose, several fingers and severely injured her left leg. She has since led a life of shame from the visible disfigurement without a nose and had to learn to survive by breathing completely through her mouth. Ms. Phuc's family took her to Hue Central Hospital during the week of the mission pleading for surgery to correct the visible nose deformity. Lt Col (Dr.) Joe Sniezek, Otolaryngologist and Chief, Head and Neck Surgery at Tripler Army Medical Center, along with ENT colleagues from Hue Central Hospital, teamed up to provide the first-ever complete nose reconstruction surgery ever done at Hue Central Hospital. After 6 hours in the operating room, where cartilage was taken from her ears and a skin flap brought down from her forehead, a new nose was reconstructed. For the first time in over 30 years, the visible scar on Ms. Phuc's face has begun to heal and her family was shaken with joy to see normalcy and healing for the first time, being brought back on Ms. Phuc's lovely face.
The Chairman of the Hue City People's Committee commended the Team for providing a wide variety of services and helping so many different segments of the community. The Governor of Thua Thien province extended an invitation to the Mayor of Honolulu to come to Hue, possibly to see another "Partnership for Health" in action. In addition, he expressed appreciation for American efforts to bring native Hawaiian trees to Hue as part of the existing Honolulu-Hue sister city partnership to support the city's long term beautification plan. The Governor of the Province made a special effort to meet the Team and expressed interest in meeting the Governor of Hawaii to advance partnership by initiating a State to State partnership with Hawaii. Dr. Nicholas DoanVan, a native of Hue now an interventional cardiologist practicing in the California, translated and explained how the Vietnamese officials thought the mission was truly groundbreaking and set the stage for expanded US-VN cooperation in the future.
A tired, but happy group of Americans boarded the vans for their return flights home. Many reflected on the hard work, long hours, occasional frustrations, strange sights, and throngs of needy patients. Was it a good investment of time, effort and money? Had they really made a difference?
The answer is perhaps found in what one of the young Vietnamese translators had told us at the closing ceremony: "Your many positive actions taught us what Aloha really means. Come again soon and work close beside your many new friends."