VERMILLION — Staff Sgt. Penny Dickes and Spc. Jared Eslick-Coats had served in overseas combat, but they weren't ready for what they found just off the United States' shores.
They were among 27 soldiers who returned last weekend from Haiti with the South Dakota Army National Guard's 730th Area Support Medical Company. The Vermillion-based unit provided free care for Haitians — still suffering from January's devastating earthquake — during the New Horizons humanitarian exercise.
"We treated more than 5,000 Haitians in nine days. Some of them had never seen medical treatment before," Dickes said. "They started lining up (at our clinic) the night before. When we got there the next morning, there was already a line-up of hundreds of people."
The medical readiness training exercise (MEDRETE) in Haiti served the area of Gonaives, about 150 miles north of the capital of Port-au-Prince. Dickes formed part of an advance party that prepared for the rest of the unit.
"Our area (around Gonaives) wasn't hit by the earthquake as hard as Port-au-Prince, but there was still some building damage," Dickes said.
The 730th occupied part of a Haitian government-run clinic, working non-stop from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day with only a 15-minute lunch break. Interpreters helped the soldiers communicate with their patients, who spoke French and Creole.
Haiti ranks as one of the poorest nations in the Western Hemisphere, Dickes said. The earthquake made dire conditions even worse.
"It has opened the eyes of soldiers who were never to a Third World country," she said. "It makes you appreciate what we have back here (in the United States)."
Eslick-Coats said he couldn't believe the living conditions just a short plane flight from Florida.
"I have been to Iraq, and (Haiti's) services were more basic than Iraq," he said. "People were living in tents and huts. They were wearing a lot of clothes donated from the University of Florida and other places."
The 730th served patients ranging from newborns to a 98-year-old man, Eslick-Coats said. The image of one patient remains seared in his memory.
"An albino lady didn't have access to sunscreen, and she had a cancerous mole on her face," he said. "We sent her to a hospital sponsored by the University of Miami, 45 miles away, to get the mole removed."
Much of the care consisted of basic hygiene, Dickes said.
"We offered a lot of preventative medicine," she said. "We told them about hand cleaning. We gave them vitamins and showed them how to brush their teeth. We de-wormed all children more than 20 pounds and on up to adults."
The staff also demonstrated the use of condoms, mainly for AIDS prevention, Dickes said. The clinic treated a large number of patients with sexually-transmitted diseases, she said.
"There was a lack of knowledge (about sexual practices)," she said.
Eslick-Coats said he was surprised by the lack of basic health awareness among the Haitians. "Most of what we taught was everyday things that we would consider normal routine," he said.
The 730th examined 25 to 30 patients at a time. The 730th is made up of health care specialists, radiologists, lab technicians, mental health technicians, physician assistants, medical doctors, nurses and other administrative and supply personnel.
"People walked, or they rode on the back of motorcycles and pickups to get to us," Dickes said. "There was only one day that we had to turn people away. The rest of the time, we managed to get them all in."
Most of the cases were handled at the clinic, but some emergencies were sent to the University of Miami's site at Port-au-Prince.
"We averaged at least 500 patients a day. One day, we saw 750," Dickes said. "We had people come with cancerous lesions, broken bones and deformities."
Dickes provided ultrasound examinations as part of prenatal care. In some cases, Haitian women thought they were pregnant but learned they weren't.
"The Haitians had been given mobile ultrasound machines, but no one knew how to use them," she said. "It was just amazing for (expectant mothers) to see an ultrasound, that there was a live being in them that was moving."
The 730th operated under trying conditions in sweltering heat, Dickes said. Bugs were also a major problem, and the 730th soldiers are taking malaria pills for 30 days.
"They set up generators for electricity because they didn't have dependable electric supplies," she said. "We had fans because there was no air conditioning."
The Haitians themselves weren't the only ones treated by the visiting soldiers, Dickes said.
"We had veterinarians who came with us from different states," she said. "They treated goats and pigs, and they helped out in the back behind the clinic. Those animals are very important to the people."
The animals literally became neighbors to the soldiers, Dickes said.
"We had concertina wire around the compound, and anything that got through the wire was in our compound," she said. "We had goats, pigs and chickens on our forward operating base. We had big cats in the trees. Every morning, goats were eating grass around the cactus."
Even after the mission was completed, the flight home remained an adventure, Eslick-Coats said.
"The (Haitian) pilot said they forgot to count the bags, so they had to stop and do that," he said. "The delay pushed us behind."
The soldiers ran into another delay when their flight became blocked by another plane. After missing a connecting flight, the 730th spent Saturday night in Chicago before returning home to Sioux Falls and Vermillion on Sunday.
"We came home (to Sioux Falls) at the same time as an Honor Flight (carrying World War II veterans from Washington, D.C.)," Eslick-Coats said. "We came off the plane and here were people with flags for the Honor Flight. They still clapped for us and said thank you (for our service)."
Dickes found a special satisfaction on the recent mission.
"The 730th served in Iraq with Desert Storm and Operation Iraq Freedom," she said. "In combat, we were also soldiers. But this time, we were there strictly for (the Haitians') needs and medical care."
Eslick-Coats marveled at the Haitians' appreciation for the medical care.
"I never knew a place where people had so little and were so happy to see the doctors," he said. "They were very patient with us and knew why we were there. They were so thankful."
Dickes agreed. "The people were very kind. They were very grateful to have us there."