By Lt. Col. Dale Greer, 123rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs
/ Published June 26, 2018
BEATTYVILLE, Ky. -- Marita Moore came bearing gifts.
The Beattyville resident arrived here at Lee County High School on Wednesday with trays full of homemade cookies, brownies and fudge. It was her way of saying “thank you” to the Air National Guardsmen and U.S. Navy reservists who set up health-care clinics in four Eastern Kentucky communities this month to train while serving local residents with no-cost medicine, dentistry and eyeglasses.
A Navy dentist extracted 12 of Moore’s teeth in one sitting last week so she can have dentures made and restore her smile. She’s been needing them for a long time but didn’t have the money to pay for care.
“I’m just really grateful for what they did for me,” Moore said, her eyes filling with tears. “I lost my insurance a few years ago and can’t afford to go to the dentist. Last year, my husband had a stroke, so we’re trying to bounce back. But it’s been hard.”
Moore was so pleased with her care that she brought in eight other family members for dental work, eye exams and glasses.
“This clinic has been a Godsend,” she said. “The community needed it, and I thank God for their help.”
Moore is one of 2,662 patients who received over $1 million worth of no-cost health care at the four clinics from June 15 to 24 as part of a mission called Operation Bobcat.
During those 10 days, doctors, dentists, optometrists and medics from the Air National Guard and U.S. Navy Reserve performed 11,275 procedures and handed out 1,457 pairs of no-cost prescription eyeglasses, according to U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Amy Mundell, the mission’s officer in charge.
Services included medical screenings and sports physicals, dental cleanings and extractions, eye exams and single-prescription eyeglasses made on site by a U.S. Navy mobile optical lab. Clinics operated at high schools in four medically underserved communities — Booneville, Beattyville, Irvine and Jackson — with patients being seen on a first-come, first-served basis.
Neither insurance nor identification were required, explained Mundell, a medical administrative officer with the Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Medical Group, which served as the lead military agency.
“The primary purpose of Operation Bobcat is to provide military medical troops with crucial training in logistics and field operations so they’re better prepared to respond to real-world emergencies, conflicts or disasters,” Mundell explained. “At the same time, they provide direct and lasting benefits to the residents of Eastern Kentucky.
“Servicemembers get hands-on readiness training with deployable equipment that enhances their capabilities when mobilized, and local residents get access to high-quality health care at no cost to the individual. That’s a win-win scenario for everyone.”
Planning for Operation Bobcat began nearly two years ago, but the mission truly got underway June 13, when 167 Air National Guardsmen from 40 states and Navy reservists from across the nation arrived here to join an advance team of 33 troops. They immediately began unpacking 30 tons of medical gear and support equipment to set up clinics at Breathitt, Estill, Lee and Owsley County High Schools. The team even brought its own communications networks and food services personnel capable of serving nearly 8,000 meals throughout the mission.
By June 15, all four clinics were operational and started accepting patients.
“This is a huge undertaking to get 200 people and 30 tons of equipment here from across the country,” said U.S. Air Force Maj. Brett Ringger, an optometrist from the Texas Air National Guard’s 136th Airlift Wing. “It doesn’t just magically come together. It takes a lot of planning and logistics to get it done. So that provides a key training opportunity.”
Another important aspect of the mission is the ability for troops to train with portable, deployable equipment, Ringger said. Some of the medical and dental gear used during Operation Bobcat is unique to deployed environments. The optometry instruments and dental equipment, for example, are designed for use in field settings and may be unfamiliar to servicemembers who have only used standard equipment at their home stations.
“This is equipment that we normally don’t get to use very often,” Ringger noted, “so being able to train on it here helps prepare us in the event that we have to use the same equipment while responding to a disaster or contingency operation.”
As important as the training was — more than 13,361 hours accomplished — the mission’s most rewarding aspect may have been the opportunity to serve the residents of Eastern Kentucky.
“The patient population here is one that’s chronically underserved,” said U.S. Navy Cmdr. Walter Schratz, a dentist from Expeditionary Medical Facility Bethesda in Maryland and Operation Bobcat’s assistant officer in charge.
“Some of these patients have traveled for hours to visit one of our sites and receive care. It was a privilege for our practitioners to serve someone who needs a painful tooth extracted or a new pair of glasses so they can see clearly.”
Ringger told the story of one patient who had gone for years without new glasses because he was wheelchair-bound and couldn’t fit his chair in an optometrist’s examination room.
“Here, we use portable equipment, and the patient was able to wheel himself right into position, allowing him to get new glasses and see clearly for the first time in a decade,” he said. “Just giving someone a simple pair of glasses can change their life.”
U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jay Ross said Operation Bobcat was especially rewarding because it helped meet one of his long-term personal goals — to serve those who lack access to quality care.
“I went into dentistry to serve the underserved,” said Ross, a dentist from Expeditionary Medical Facility Camp Pendleton in California, where he also operates a civilian dental practice.
“I don’t mind being in private practice, and I like working with people who can afford good dental care. But it’s something else to serve patients who simply don’t have access for whatever reason. It’s what I love to do.
“I’ve had two patients here literally cry because we took out their diseased teeth and they were able to move on from that. It’s an amazing experience when a patient cries and hugs you because you’ve made a difference for them.”
Ross told the story of another patient for whom he extracted all her teeth because of irreparable disease.
“Before, when she looked in the mirror, she saw a mouthful of decay. Now, she’ll be able to get a denture, and when she looks in the mirror she’ll see a beautiful smile. In my private practice, all I do is drill and fill. Here, I’m extracting diseased teeth and improving the quality of life for people who have no access to care. If it’s possible, I just want to do missions like this from here on out — it’s been that great an experience for me.”
One of many patients who lacked access to dental care was Damon Parker of Beattyville. Parker came to the Lee County clinic to have a painful tooth extracted by U.S. Navy Cmdr. David Carneiro. The tooth had been causing so much pain that Parker was popping Advil for weeks just so he could sleep at night.
“It was getting pretty bad,” Parker said of the tooth. “We lost our insurance a couple of months ago, and there was no way I could afford to go to the dentist to have anything done. I really appreciate what you guys have done,” Parker added, struggling to maintain his composure. “Everybody has just been so nice and friendly and helpful. It’s done a lot to help the people out here.”
For Mundell, serving fellow Kentuckians like Parker makes the mission especially satisfying.
“I am a Kentucky Air Guardsman, so it’s a great experience for me to be part of a mission that offers needed care to so many underserved residents in my own state. It’s tremendously gratifying to know that the work of our doctors and dentists has allowed a patient to see clearly for the first time in a decade, relieved chronic pain or literally given someone their smile back.”
Mundell noted that the mission would never have happened without support from the Department of Defense, which funds and supplies efforts like Operation Bobcat through a program called Innovative Readiness Training. Equally supportive have been the mission’s local partner, the Kentucky Department for Local Government, and the communities and school boards of Estill, Jackson, Lee and Owsley Counties.
“We worked very closely with the Department for Local Government, the local school boards and the high school facility managers to make this mission happen,” Mundell said. “The schools in particular have been kind and gracious to allow us to come in and operate out of their facilities. Without that kind of community support, we wouldn’t have been able to do any of this.”
While clinical operations ended Sunday, the mission has not. Troops still have to pack up their gear and redeploy to their home units.
Schratz says he will travel home with a feeling of true accomplishment.
“It really was a wonderful opportunity to participate in this mission,” he said. “When I was first asked to be a part of Operation Bobcat, I thought a lot about what it would be like to serve this community, and it has far exceeded my wildest imagination.
“The people have been very gracious and appreciative, and I feel the same could be said about what we’ve experienced, too. This has been one of the best experiences of my military career.”