Citizen Airmen, Soldiers and Sailors provide no-cost medical care to remote communities

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Peter Dean
  • 927th Air Refueling Wing

MOUNTAIN HOME, Ark. -- Citizen Airmen from the 927th Air Refueling Wing, MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, partnered with service members from throughout the country to provide no-cost medical care to communities in North Central Arkansas, June 5-12.

The Ozark Highlands 2017 Innovative Readiness Training team consisted of more than 140 service members working side-by-side from the Air Force Reserve, Army Reserve, Navy Reserve, active duty Navy and Air National Guard.

“The IRT program is a unique way to provide real-world training to our medical personnel while helping our fellow Americans by providing them no-cost medical care,” said U.S. Air Force Maj. Lisa Haik, immunizations chief, 919th Special Operations Squadron, Duke Field, Florida, and the Ozark Highlands IRT officer in charge. “The ability to build community relationships and showing them another softer side of the military is invaluable.”

Upon arrival at Mountain Home, the Ozark Highlands IRT 2017 Team was divided into three groups: one traveling to Marshall High School, Marshall, Arkansas; one to Yellville Junior High School, Yellville, Arkansas; and the third at the Mountain Home Junior High School.

Community members had multiple no-cost services available to them, including dental exams, cleanings, fillings and extractions. Additional no-cost services included general medical physicals and optometry exams, including new glasses.

“I’m a single mom; my husband died eight years ago, and it’s a struggle raising and providing for my two daughters on one income,” said local resident Trisha Diaz. “I think this is amazing, without this I wouldn’t have been able to afford glasses for myself and my kids, we would have to go without.”

With a Naval Ophthalmic Support and Training Activity team on site, patients, such as the Diaz family that took advantage of the optometry services were able to receive a new pair of glasses in just 24 hours after their initial visit.

“We have everything we need to offer a fast turnaround. The patients choose a frame, the doctor supplies the prescription, and we knock them out,” said U.S. Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Jeffrey James, an optician at NOSTRA Naval and Weapons Station, Yorktown, Virginia. “We’re not ‘Lens Crafters,’ but if we had to, we could have a pair ready in about an hour.”

Community members and the service members mutually benefitted from the IRT; people who needed medical care received it, and the military members received practical, hands-on experience.

“To be able to help others in need is truly humbling,” said U.S. Army Capt. Deborah Spencer, nurse practitioner at the 75th Combat Support Hospital, Tuscaloosa Alabama. “This was my first IRT, and it won’t be my last. This was a memorable experience, one I won’t soon forget.”

Balancing training requirements and community needs is no easy task and required input from multiple parties. Planning included organizations such as the Delta Regional Authority, the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District, local churches and charities.


“During the year-long planning process, we had a team that evaluated every detail,” said U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. James Finley from the 927th Aeromedical Staging Squadron and Ozark Highlands IRT noncommissioned officer in charge. “What are the community needs? Are we able to effectively meet those needs? Are hardened facilities available or do we need tents? We try to leave no stone unturned; the goal is to benefit both the military and the local community.”

After the military has packed up and moved out of town, an essential part of the process is ensuring community members who are still in need are aware of the resources available to them.

“We find that many of our folks that are in need simply won’t ask for help because they are embarrassed; they are too proud,” said Tina Cole, Community and Economic Development Coordinator, Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District. “Because you [IRT] are not local and not from around here, they feel comfortable seeking help and it gets them in the door. Once in the door, we can talk with them, share our available services with them, and most importantly let them know we care.”

Regardless of their financial means, the IRT welcomed and treated all community members the same. No IDs were checked, no names were asked; just a short medical history was required. The goal was to provide no-cost medical care for all.

“This is absolutely a blessing,” said local resident Gayla Terdening. “This is our third day back. The first day we had our teeth cleaned, then yesterday we had fillings and today we are getting a pair of new glasses. This is truly wonderful.”

The gratitude from the community came in many forms, from a simple thank you to hand delivered cards and homemade baked goods. The community also planned morale events at local attractions in the evening.

“This community has really embraced us,” Haik said. “They are taking great good care of us. Our service members are really enjoying themselves.”

During the Ozark Highlands IRT, medical personnel treated 3,990 patients and performed 8,961 procedures worth an estimated value of more than $700,000.