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This Month in AFMS History: Twenty years ago, AF medical team responds to Hurricane Mitch in Honduras

  • Published
  • By Kevin M. Hymel
  • Air Force Medical Service History Office

The 24th Medical Group at Howard Air Force Base, Panama, was a year away from decommissioning and returning to the U.S. when Hurricane Mitch slammed into Honduras on October 29, 1998.

The Category 1 hurricane dumped 75 inches of rain in five days, with a storm surge that reached 30 feet. Mud-brick homes literally dissolved in the rising waters. Flooding and mudslides killed 5,700 people and left half a million homeless. Hundreds of citizens suffered stomach ailments, respiratory diseases, and festering rashes. Despite the impending drawdown, Col. Greg Trebone, commander of the 24th Wing at Howard, directed Col. (Dr.) Terrence Jay O’Neil, the 24th MDG commander, to prepare a humanitarian mission to the beleaguered country, in coordination with U.S. Army South Command.

O’Neil asked for volunteers for a Medical Readiness Training Exercise (MEDRETE) team to go to Honduras, and 80 volunteered. O’Neil picked a team of 11, consisting of three physicians, two dentists, and six specialists. He put Maj. Alvis Headen in charge of the team.

Supporting the MEDRETE, Senior Master Sgt. Jose Ciceraro and Master Sgt. Steve Gralewski provided everything the team needed before it departed for Honduras.

“Within three days they pulled together several pallets containing helmets, canteens, portable generators, combat knives and other equipment,” said O’Neil. “There was a sense of common interest in ensuring each other’s safety overseas.”

When the team’s C-130 Hercules touched down at Soto Cano Air Base in Honduras on November 2, the runway was under six inches of water. No one was manning the customs posts, so the team simply walked through the base and joined up with Army colleagues. They spent the first day filling sandbags and hanging mosquito netting, giving the Soto Cano troops their first food and rest break in five days.

For the next two weeks, Headen’s team, paired with U.S. Army medical teams, drove through the devastated countryside and set up make-shift clinics in still-standing homes. Almost immediately, people began lining up outside by the hundreds. Nurses screened patients at the door, while the doctors treated individuals and families for everything from eye, ear, lung, and skin infections, to diarrhea and parasites. For many of the patients, the clinic visits were the first time they had ever used medications.

Most of the team had never experienced such devastation.

“The worst thing I’ve smelled since anatomy class,” said Capt. (Dr.) Cody Henderson, “A mixture of fresh mud, sewage and decay.”

By the end of their mission on November 16, the team had treated 1,500 people.

The 13-hour days of traveling into the countryside and treating patients exhausted the team but gave them pride in their work. Upon returning to Panama, some who had thought of leaving the Air Force changed their minds.

“This has jumpstarted my enthusiasm for what the Air Force can do,” one team members told O’Neil.

O’Neil also took immense pride in what the team had accomplished, saying, “Headen’s team was critical in saving lives and served as good representatives of the United States as a force for good.”