PONCE, Puerto Rico — Citizen-Soldiers respond when natural disasters, such as Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, cause enough damage to disrupt the victims' ways of life so much that they require outside help to recover.
Since Hurricane Harvey first made landfall in late August, more than 300 Ohio National Guard Soldiers and Airmen have deployed to support disaster relief missions resulting from the three devastating hurricanes that tore through the Caribbean, Texas and Florida. They have been able to provide security, stability, organization, transportation, network communications, aerial support, engineering and command teams.
One of these Ohio National Guard units deployed specifically to provide medical care for the victims of Hurricane Maria.
A Federal Medical Station (FMS) can help meet the medical needs of impacted citizens by setting up in places that, prior to the natural disaster, were just regular businesses, buildings, schools or complexes.
One such FMS, at the Auditorio Juan Pachín Vicéns sports arena in Ponce, Puerto Rico, is where Soldier-medics of the Ohio National Guard's 285th Medical Company (Area Support) provided medical aid to civilians in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. With more than 100 beds available, the FMS was equipped to accommodate both inpatient and outpatient procedures.
The 285th team worked with the U.S. Public Health Service, a disaster medical assistance team, security forces like the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and local police who all had the same goal: to provide safe and effective medical relief and care to patients.
Capt. Tyler Wiltshire, a physician's assistant with the 285th, described the FMS as a "public service to the community," where patients whose doctors' offices are closed can continue to receive the medical attention they need.
The arena was adjusted to provide urgent and long-term medical care in a field-hospital environment. The FMS allows patients access to showers in the locker rooms, where medical personnel built dividers for patient privacy. What was formerly a VIP room for basketball fans was turned into a critical care unit for patients on ventilators and others with acute medical needs.
"I love them all," said patient Steven Rosario, referring to the Soldiers who took care of him. Rosario's home was badly damaged during the hurricane and he describes the arena as a "refuge."
Those admitted to the FMS were typically "not sick enough to stay in the hospital, but are too sick to go home," said Sgt. 1st Class Dustin Hartman, the acting first sergeant of the 285th ASMC and a registered nurse in his civilian career. He is in charge of the health and welfare of his deployed Soldiers and keeping them informed of the policies and procedures that govern their practices.
Combat medics like those of the 285th ASMC are well trained in trauma response and the minimization of post-traumatic complications. In Puerto Rico, the Soldiers must maximize their critical thinking skills to accomplish duties they aren't used to performing.
"Although they are working inside their scope as medics, it is something they're not used to doing daily," Hartman said. "For example, ambulating patients, getting them dressed and showered, helping them use the restroom, etc. They aren't used to being used as an appointed care technician."
Many of these combat medics are in school working toward a future in the medical field or already work as medical professionals. These Soldiers have left their families, work and school lives to volunteer to help others in Puerto Rico.
Since arriving in October, the 285th team has cared for more than 1,400 patients, providing various services to the residents of Ponce and the surrounding communities, ensuring those who need care, receive it. The team has also provided medical care in Jayuya, about an hour's drive north of Ponce, in central Puerto Rico, and is now in Manati, near the northern coast of the island.
The selfless humanitarian work of the ONG Soldiers and their willingness to respond to victims of natural disasters in their time of need showcases what the National Guard is all about — Citizen-Soldiers helping fellow citizens.
"I'm pleasantly surprised that everybody that came on this mission volunteered," Hartman said. "So not only did they volunteer to serve their country when they initially enlisted, but every person here volunteered to go on this mission."