By Staff Sgt. Mike R. Smith, Guard Times Staff
PLATTSBURGH AIR FORCE BASE, N.Y. — With a hospital full of dusty medical equipment, thousands of refugees needing medical treatment, and the Gulf of Mexico in between, a small mission upstate recently called upon Airmen to aid in a miracle.
“I feel blessed to have met this group,” Sister Deb said. She looks across the broken down remains of what was once an emergency room as sharp clanking and banging sounds echo through an open doorway on her right. Something large and heavy is being lifted.
“I don’t know how we could have accomplished this without them.”
Sister Deb, or Debbie Blow, executive director for the North Country Mission of Hope, has an ongoing mission to provide humanitarian assistance to Nicaragua. On this day, that mission included working with members of the New York Air National Guard.
About 17 Airmen provided assistance to the mission Oct. 25 – 27 to send medical supplies and equipment to Nicaraguan refugees.
Stratton, home of the 109th Airlift Wing whose ski-equipped LC-130s land at the North and South poles, was the closest base available with the required equipment and skills to complete the task.
“The Wing has a rather large Plattsburgh alumni … we had three individuals who were previously stationed at Plattsburgh Air Force Base on this exercise,” said Senior Master Sgt. Mark Schaible, Aerial Port supervisor.
Airmen from the Aerial Port, Vehicle Maintenance, Supply, Civil Engineer, and Operations groups helped remove, prepare, package, and ship the medical equipment and supplies. It included X-ray equipment, operating tables, autoclaves, dental chairs, mammography machines, and other large medical equipment and supplies from the now-closed Plattsburgh Air Force Base Hospital for humanitarian assistance in Nicaragua.
The group moved the equipment from the deserted four-story hospital to a staging area on Plattsburgh’s flight line, where they prepared and loaded the stuff into containers for sea-lift.
“We are making custom crates for the larger, more important machines,” said Senior Master Sgt. Tom Chico, civil engineer. He walked across the sawdust-covered floor of a makeshift wood shop to grab an old hospital mattress, used to protect the side of a mammography machine. “A lot of people want to make sure this particular piece makes it down there, undamaged.”
The items will be shipped to the country free of charge through the Department of Defense’s Denton Program, which is a logistics program that transports U.S. aid worldwide by land, sea, and air within the Defense Transportation System.
“The hospital had been closed for nine years and was pretty musty,” Sergeant Schaible said. He added that the basement was a little eerie due to its low lighting.
An advance party of six Airmen arrived at the hospital Oct. 25 to organize how the group should remove four floors of equipment in two days. The remaining Airmen came the following morning and quickly got to work using hand trucks, carts, and a forklift brought up from Stratton ANGB.
“We came to assist the Mission of Hope, but I think I speak for all 109th personnel who helped out that we gained as well in this endeavor,” Sergeant Schaible said.
“We had to tell them to take some time off,” said Connie Miller, Mission of Hope secretary. She leaned over her clipboard and looked into one of six shipping containers being loaded by the Airmen.
“They are extremely respectful of what we are trying to do here,” she said, and then reviewed her count of what has been loaded so far.
“PARC donated those transformers to ensure the equipment has a steady power supply,” she added while pointing to the loading area. “They also gave us generators, refrigerators, and a stove.”
PARC (Plattsburgh Airbase Redevelopment Corporation) managed the base since 1995, after a round of base closures nationwide. A memory of the cold war, the Air Force Base is now transforming into a 5,000-acre industrial park.
When the Mission of Hope was informed of the availability of the hospital equipment, they had little time to act — the outdated equipment was slated for destruction because it did not comply with current U.S. regulations. (The final fate of the building has yet to be decided.)
“The reality is that what’s state of the art in Nicaragua is not good here,” Sister Deb said.
At lunchtime on the second day of the Airmen’s arrival. Sister Deb returned from bringing them sandwich meat, bread, chips, and soda donated by the local community. She added that requests and paperwork for the project were fast-tracked with the help of state and federal officials who realized the potential benefits the equipment could provide for the Nicaraguans.
“Everything came together quickly.”
Support for the project poured in from military and community, and the mission received everything needed to get the equipment sailing, from pallet and packaging material to food for those moving and crating equipment. “It’s amazing how everything has fallen into place,” Sister Deb said. She went on to say that medical professionals from the local community also volunteered to check out the equipment and ensure it was safe and usable.
“Everything we are sending, we know works good,” she said.
Additionally, a local equipment calibrator volunteered to test the equipment and will travel to Nicaragua to train locals when the stuff arrives Nov. 25.
“They’re the same people who serviced the equipment when this hospital was open,” she added. “It seems beyond coincidence …”
The North Country Mission of Hope has seen miracles happen before.
Thousands of children and their families living in the most desperate situations in poverty-stricken Nicaragua have received help from the mission. According to the organization, volunteers and donations have assisted in many ways including medical and healthcare, educational scholarships, emergency food distribution, educational co-ops and building construction. This recent effort ends with the mission’s 13th trip — they began in 1998 after responding to Hurricane Mitch in the impoverished villages of Chiquilistagua and Monte Verde, Nicaragua.
On their last night together, the mission held a thank you dinner for the Airmen where they handed out certificates of appreciation and T-shirts to recognize the hard work.
Sergeant Schaible explained that, although the Wing has Airmen fighting the War on Terror and is deeply involved in Antarctica supporting Operation Deep Freeze, they were eager to support the Mission of Hope.
“The Guard can meet the needs of the Nation and State including humanitarian missions on the home front,” Sergeant Schaible said.