Public Health team works with Western Kentucky health departments for community outreach

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. James W. Killen
  • 123rd Airlift Wing, Public Affairs Office
More than 150 military health care professionals have provided thousands of medical, dental and optical services at three sites in Western Kentucky since July 18 as part of a mission to serve uninsured or underinsured residents, but a smaller team has been making a big impact, too.

That group of four Airmen, all from the Kentucky Air National Guard's 123rd Airlift Wing, is called Public Health, explained U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Carolyn Congleton.

Public Health's usual mission is to monitor deployed environments for potential biological, environmental or safety threats so troops remain safe. In Western Kentucky, however, they've also been working with local health officials to conduct preventative education programs.

While the team may be small, their impact can be tremendous, said Congleton, chief of Public Health for the Kentucky Air Guard's 123rd Medical Group.

"There are only four of us on site right now, but the community outreach work we're doing can pay tremendous benefits to the health of the community later," she said.

U.S. Air Force Capt. Lauren Lwanga, public health officer for the 123rd Medical Group, agreed.

"Public health is about prevention and education," she said. "We want to prepare our troops and the public, because if we all know about the causes of disease, we'll know what to do to prevent them," Lwanga said.

The Public Health team has shared its expertise with public health departments in Carlisle, Graves and McCracken counties while working with those departments to learn more about health issues impacting Western Kentucky, Lwanga said.

The team is just one component of the Bluegrass Medical Innovative Readiness Training exercise, which has deployed more than 200 Air National Guard, Army National Guard, active-duty U.S. Navy and Navy Reserve troops to Bardwell, Mayfield and Paducah, Ky., from July 18 to 27 to provide no-cost health care to area residents. To date, hundreds of patients have benefitted from the program, giving the Public Health team a ready audience for preventative education.

"We've been able to use the IRT as a platform to disseminate a great deal of local public health information," Lwanga said. "Many of those residents may otherwise never have had the opportunity to get it."

Most of the public health issues in the local community concern animals and summer heat, according to Congleton.

"Dog bites, bats and heat-related illnesses are the primary concerns," she said. "This being a rural area, there are no leash laws, and many dogs are not only owned as pets, they additionally guard property and farms."

Besides community outreach efforts, Congleton releases a daily public health note for the troops here, in order to emphasize prevention and readiness. One of the major troop-related concerns in Western Kentucky is dehydration.

"Temperatures here move well into the 90s, so it is easy to become dehydrated," Congleton said. "The more the Airmen, Sailors and Soldiers know about prevention, the less potential there is for heat-related illnesses."

The team also works to help prevent issues related to work fatigue. Those issues can be serious, so every effort is made to keep the troops here working as safely and efficiently as possible.

"Like any military unit, our number-one priority is the mission," Congleton said. "Through training and readiness, we ensure the health and safety of our troops who carry out that mission."

The team has accomplished some training unrelated to the IRT mission, too. 

Team members set mosquito traps -- not because mosquitos are a public health concern in Western Kentucky, but because they are in other areas of the world, and as an integral part of the 123rd Airlift Wing, Public Health could be called to deploy anywhere at a moment's notice.

"We set mosquito traps to give our troops an opportunity to understand where, when and how to set traps," Lwanga said. "Our base in Louisville (Kentucky) does not have a great number of places to test these skills, but Western Kentucky offers that type of environment, so it's a great training opportunity."