This humanitarian mission has a macro-level motive, of course. “Soft power,” diplomatic and humanitarian efforts like this one, undertaken to “win the hearts and minds” of populations, has become an integral part of global security strategy. In short, we’d rather prevent an insurgency than fight against one, but since we cannot be sure where the next war and ensuing insurgency may take place it makes sense to cover our bases, so to speak. But winning hearts and minds, whether in a hotspot like Iraq or Afghanistan or in a presently-stable place like Nicaragua, doesn’t happen from a distance or through sending a big fat foreign aid check: it happens when two people look each other in the eye and see that the other ain’t so bad. Sure, the enlisted sailors and ship’s crew are on the ship and on the mission under orders. Sure, some of the officers volunteered with an eye on how this mission will help their career advancement. But that doesn’t change the value of those one-on-one interactions. Whether it’s the doctor and patient, the veterinarian and owner of the animal, or the COMREL team member and the local kids, the person to person human interactions effect the good relations between nations. That means these sons and daughters of the USA, Canada, Brazil, and the Netherlands are personally, directly improving international relations just by being who they are. By no means is everyone on this mission is the model of virtue, but among those who went ashore the only gripe I heard was from those COMREL teams who were hampered from doing anything by lack of supplies.
Attendant to that thought, however, is the pessimist’s view of such a quick stint in country — given how destitute these people are, how much good can we really do in only two weeks? One sailor voiced this attitude to me after being on shore with the COMREL team. With tens of thousands of people in the Puerta Cabezas area, even though the medical team treated upwards of 20,000 people, many, many people received no treatment at all. After evaluating the frightening drainage system at the hospital grounds — where biohazard waste lies in piles around the grounds — the US Public Health Service engineers estimated it would require a complete overhaul of the city sanitary system and cost four to six million dollars to make it acceptable. Four to six million American dollars would go much further down here than in the States. On the last day I overheard a doctor tell a young man who had come for the first time, “You have a minor hernia. Had you come earlier we probably could have taken you to the ship and fixed that, but this is our last day. All I can tell you is that we’ll be back next year, so if you’re able, come on one of the first days and we should be able to get you fixed up.”
Such despairing questions, of course, miss a number of points.
First, we cannot fix all the problems and cure all the disease. Once our sights are re-calibrated down from Garden of Eden the pessimistic view loses a lot of its punch.
Second, and related, inability to fix all problems must not stop one from fixing any of the problems. Sure, there will be problems once we’re gone, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do what we can while here.
Third, we are not the ones responsible for fixing all the problems.
Fourth, by helping as many as we can we touch all those who may not themselves have received treatment but who come to know of the help we did give to their friends and family. Medical treatment and engineering projects don’t affect just one person any more than a stone tossed into a still pond doesn’t affect just the water molecules it directly touches. The personal touch from caregiver to receiver can have an effect far beyond what we see or ever know about. Friendships spread. Diplomacy benefits.
Fourth, call this the opposite of setting one’s sights on the Garden of Eden, but the people are happy in spite of the squalor. Somehow those of us in the First World have the idea that happiness is not possible outside of material wealth and comfort. Flat wrong. Happiness comes from within; it is not applied from without like makeup or so much bling. I recall a line from Fiddler on the Roof: “They’re so happy they don’t know how miserable they are.” Reduction of disease and basic hygiene lessons will help them to be healthier, more robust, and more productive; engineering consults will point their officials in the direction of better infrastructure and services; new play equipment will raise their spirits and fuel their imagination. But these things will not make them happy; the happiness is supplied by the people themselves.
By and large, however, I didn’t encounter negative or pessimistic attitudes. The people in the mission are dedicated to the work being done, and I am astounded by the work ethic of these people. The sheer number of patients these doctors, dentists, optometrists, and nurses attend to blows me away. In one day at the Yulu clinic:
- Two dentists saw 48 patients and extracted 52 teeth
- One optometrist saw 96 patients and handed out 91 pairs of glasses
- Two vets and two vet techs treated 1,248 animals
The general practitioners saw similarly-ridiculous numbers of patients.
Those numbers are unheard of in a private practice where conditions are far easier — common language, run-of-the-mill ailments, already set-up in a clean, controlled environment. These patients come with who-knows-what bump, bruise, break, tropical disease, or other, and the doctors spend time with each one, assess their individual, unique situation, treat them as best they can, make recommendations for future self-help, and give them a prescription, a toothbrush, whatever they can to help. I never saw a worn-out or overwhelmed look on their faces, never a sense that they just can’t do it any longer. Sure, they’re human and they get irritable, but I didn’t notice it while they were working with the patients, no matter how long the line.
Also in Yulu, after hours of completing a well project and helping with the COMREL basketball hoops project, The four Air Force Prime Beef construction engineers went out and played soccer with the locals. These guys easily outweighed the heaviest of the locals by 50 pounds, probably doubling the weight of some of them. But they held their own fairly well in their BDU trousers and combat boots in that heat and humidity. These guys are trained to build and maintain buildings on bases in forward deployed zones; a humanitarian mission where the only adversaries encountered are on the field of play is totally new, and welcome.
The COMREL team in Yulu was, as usual, happy to come off the ship and eager to accomplish something for the locals. Unfortunately, this was the first time anyone had done a careful assessment of what was needed to complete the engineering project. They were lacking some necessary parts. The team was disappointed that they really could not do anything. Some of them joined in the soccer game, others just enjoyed being in the tropical sun. But the day was not a loss — I overheard by some of the COMRELs’ comment, “This is really an eye-opening experience.” Another sailor, seeing how the people of Yulu live, commented to another sailor, “And we b–ch about having to do laundry on the ship.”
The politics go both ways, you see.