Operation Healthy Delta


November 10, 2017

Two United Methodist Churches in southeast Missouri were occupied by the military for more than a week in September. The joint act of community service had people lined up outside the doors each morning.

The U.S. Department of Defense was conducting an Innovative Readiness Training dubbed Operation Healthy Delta.

The troops set up at Eastwood Memorial United Methodist Church in Caruthersville and Charleston United Methodist Church to provide medical, dental and optical services to the community at no cost to the patients.

Rev. Jerry Mattson is the pastor at Eastwood Memorial UMC in Caruthersville. Prior to the event he talked to community leaders to get the word out about the opportunity. Nearly 100 people were lined up outside the door before it opened on the first day.

Hosting the event did create additional cost and inconvenience for the church, but the congregation didn’t blink.

“Everyone in the church was very supportive of us donating our facility to help the community in this way,” Mattson said.

The troops not only used Eastwood Memorial UMC as the facility to offer their medical services, they also lived at the church while in Caruthersville. Sunday School was cancelled for that Sunday, because the Sunday school classrooms were all being used for either medical services or living quarters.

The Missouri Air National Guard 131st Bomb Wing, which has units split between Whiteman Air Force Base and St. Louis-based Jefferson Barracks, had a lead role in coordinating the operation. To carry out the mission, the 131st is also partnered with its federal Air National Guard counterparts and units, the Navy Reserve, and the Air Force. In total, about 200 service members participated from numerous units, including elements of the New Jersey ANG’s 108th Air Refuelling Wing, the New York ANG’s 109th Airlift Wing, Navy Reserve Expeditionary Force One, and the regular Air Force. Operation Healthy Delta marks the first time active duty Air Force dental personnel are joining the training exercise and working alongside their ANG and Navy Reserve counterparts.

The soldiers were doctors, dentists, nurses, medics, optometrists, pharmacist and other medical professionals. Although assembled from different branches of the services and different parts of the country, they quickly functioned as a team.

Luke Stitch from Madison, Wisconsin, was the Site Officer in Charge at Caruthersville.

“A neat thing about military medicine is how we pull together quickly,” Stitch said. “People know their specific jobs, and were working for a common mission. It’s amazing to watch the high level of performance we are operating at within a few hours of setting up.”

Stitch expressed a lot of appreciation for the hospitality of the church.

“The pastor whole-heartedly embraced the project and offered us every place the church had available,” Stich said. “For them to let us use their sacred space for the community like this shows a lot of heart. It took a lot of cooperation to make this work.”

Joel Evans is president and chief executive officer of the Delta Area Economic Opportunity Corporation. He said Pemiscot and Mississippi counties have many residents who are in need of affordable healthcare. He expressed appreciation for the support of the churches.

“The partnership across denominations here is phenomenal,” Evans said. The Catholic church was being used for the initial intakes and assessments. It also had tables set up from community agencies that were offering other services. The procedures were taking place at the Methodist Church. The Methodist Church also housed the military personnel, who brought cots and slept in classrooms.

Some of the military personnel set up in a DAEOC warehouse in Portageville to make glasses, which were then given to the people who needed them according to the eye exams.

“Many people here fall through the cracks,” Evans said. “They might make a little too much money to qualify for Medicaid, but they can’t afford insurance. Often the children are Medicaid eligible, but the parents are not.”

About an hour away at Charleston UMC, the operation was identical to the one going on in Caruthersville. Rev. Rob Webster said his church embraced the idea right from the beginning.

“Everyone in the congregation has been gracious and accommodating,” Webster said. “The sanctuary is the only space that the military isn’t using, so the Wednesday Bible study met in the sanctuary.”

The church at Charleston is about 20 years old, but looks as bright and fresh as if it were just opened last week.

“They keep the place up really well,” said Webster, who has been there 10 years. “When they built this church here, they wanted it to be a building that the community could use and benefit from having. They host many community activities here, but this is certainly the largest thing we’ve done. People in the church would have liked to have offered more hospitality, but part of their military training is being able to take care of all of their needs on their own without receiving outside support.”

Navy Chief Alay Apuzzo was the senior enlisted leader at the Charleston operation. She is originally from Puerto Rico, but now lives in Washington, D.C. This was her first operation of this nature.

“I had knots in my stomach at first, but it’s been a wonderful experience,” she said. “Seeing the way everyone has been able to immediately transform this church into a clinic has been impressive.”

She liked Missouri from the moment she arrived.

“This has been the most humbling, heart-warming experience,” Apuzzo said. “We went out to lunch, and a gentleman who was eating there paid our bill. There were 14 of us. Even at the airport, which is usually just hectic, everyone was so friendly and welcoming. We are receiving the benefit of training by being here, but we’ve received so much gratitude.”

Webster said the gratitude was flowing both ways.

“The military personnel have been outstanding,” Webster said. “Everyone who walks by my office thanks me for the use of the facility.”

Lt. Commander Joseph Fugaro was the medical group commander at Charleston. He’s part of the 131st Bomber Wing at Whitman Air Force Base. In his civilian job, he’s medical director at Landmark Hospital in Cape Girardeau. It gave him some home-field advantage.

“When people were telling me local doctors they had seen, I knew a lot of them,” Fugaro said. “We take time to do a more thorough assessment and have a more personal conversation than they may be able to do at a local clinic.”

In some cases, a person may have come in to see a dentist, but a blood pressure problem may be discovered in the assessment that takes priority.

“When we discover medical issues that go beyond what we are treating for here, we work to address and react to those issue,” Fugaro said. “We help people plug into the local health care system. We try to help people with chronic conditions know what to do going forward.”

The military wasn’t part of Fugaro’s career plans from the beginning. He was a practicing general thoracic surgeon when he decided he wanted something different out of life.

“I needed a reset,” he said. He joined the military in 2011. “I found military medicine refreshing compared to what I had been doing. This has been a wonderful way to make a difference in patients’ lives. It shows what a group of Americans can accomplish, and how we can win the hearts and minds of people by offering a helping hand.”

He enjoys seeing the military medical personnel quickly merge into a cohesive, highly functional team.

“It’s impressive to see people come together from all walks of life. The military teaches us how to row the boat, so when we come together we’re all rowing in the same direction, and the boat is going to move forward,” Fugaro said. “The relationships formed when serving like this are wonderful and intense. This work leaves you with a deep seated feeling of accomplishment and nobility. We’re united by a common cause. We know why we are here.”

Fugaro appreciated the churches opening their doors to the operation. In Charleston all of the medical intakes and services took place at the United Methodist Church, and the military personnel stayed at the Baptist church while they were there.

“The churches here have been nothing short of spectacular in their offering of hospitality. They’ve gone above and beyond their call – a true statement to southern hospitality,” he said. “It’s been an honor and a privilege to see Americans with this level of commitment to their community and fellow man. It’s the epitome of Christian values.”

David Gamache of New Jersey said the operation was in the planning stages for about a year. He’s part of the 108th Medical Dental Group. There were about 10 dentists and 10 dental techs and hygienists there. He has participated in similar operations in Texas, the arctic and overseas. That doesn’t mean he knows what to expect, though.

“They’ve all been very different. The best conceived plans change once the patients start coming in. That’s where the rubber meets the road.”

He said many people have been putting off dental issues, awaiting their arrival. He finds the work rewarding.

“I get more out of it than they do,” Gamache said. “Seeing their smiles is great.”

The congregations felt the same way. Both churches were excited about the event in its coming and happy to have been able to be there to support it when it was all over.

“They (the military) provided a wonderful boost to our area. I was so proud of the way these men and women were received,” Mattson said.

“When I was getting the final figures of the number of people served, I was told, ‘It takes a village to pull something like this off.’ I agree.”