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This Month in AFMS History: Caribbean Air Command

Caribbean Air Command Emblem

Insignia of the Caribbean Air Command. During its 20-plus years of existence as a U.S. Air Force Major Command, medical personnel from the Caribbean Air Command were responsible for delivering health care in a wide variety of challenging environments across dozens of different nations in one of the largest geographic Air Commands in the world.

Howard Air Force Base Clinic

Pictured is the Howard Air Force Base medical clinic in Panama in 1997.

Albrook Air Force Base Dispensary

The Albrook Air Force Base Dispensary (Building 865), which provided medical service to not only Air Force personnel and dependents, but also to Latin American personnel in attendance at the Air Force School for Latin America (later known as the School for the Americas). (Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

FALLS CHURCH, Va. -- For more than 20 years, the Caribbean Air Command was one of the smallest Air Force Major Commands in terms of personnel and resources, although it effectively covered one of the largest geographical areas of operations in the world. Air Force Medical Service personnel were key players in the overall success of the mission and their legacy lives on.

The Caribbean Air Command originated as the Panama Canal Air Force in October 1940. It was activated as a Major Command a month later with the mission to defend the Panama Canal. After several name changes, the Air Force redesignated the command, the Caribbean Air Command in July 1946, lasting until 1963 when it folded into the USAF Southern Command, with command authority for activities in the Caribbean,  and Central and South America. The Air Force inactivated USAF Southern Command in January 1976. 

The Air Force Medical Service (AFMS) mission within Caribbean Air Command included medical and dental support to Albrook and Howard Air Force Bases. Each air base had its own dispensary that provided medical care to all Air Force personnel, Air Force civilians, and dependents in the Canal Zone. Additionally, Albrook AFB dispensary provided care to Latin American personnel in attendance at the USAF School for Latin America (later known as the School for the Americas), while Howard AFB maintained the aeromedical evacuation holding facility.

AFMS also provided medical support for as many as 15 smaller Air Missions, dispersed throughout countries in the Caribbean and South and Central America. This consisted of semi-annual visits by medical and dental teams to each Mission. The teams would immunize, examine, treat and if necessary, request aero-medical evacuation of personnel. The AFMS also offered the same services to U.S. embassy personnel, U.S. Army, Navy, and Marine personnel, State Department and Geodetic Survey personnel and all dependents within its area of operations.

The Caribbean Air Command Medical Service provided more than just service and support to Air Force personnel and their families in the Panama Canal Zone. Through the Military Assistance Program, the AFMS was heavily engaged in providing host nation and neighboring Latin American countries with medical training programs, guidance, medical equipment, and knowledge exchange conferences. The medical mission set also included medical assistance to disaster stricken areas, veterinary services and preventive medicine, which presented a large and unusual problem-set in a tropical jungle environment. Due to the tropical environment, malaria, internal parasitism, skin rashes, rabies, and many other unusual medical concerns, medical personnel conducted medical examinations every six months.

AFMS personnel also provided veterinary and preventive medicine support to Air Force missions in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela.

Caribbean Air Command medical personnel worked under extreme climate differences ranging from high heat and humidity in the equatorial region to the frigid and frozen approaches to Antarctica. The array of medical conditions in Caribbean Air Command was unique and required ingenuity and flexibility to accomplish the mission. The teams sent to support any of the dispersed Air Missions had to carry their own pharmaceutical formulary, equipment and supplies, as they often found themselves working under austere conditions. The Caribbean Air Command provided much more than medical services to Air Force personnel and dependents living within its vast geographical area – it offered help and hope across national boundaries through the miracle of medicine.