By C. Todd Lopez
GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala (Oct. 31, 2022) -- Last month, airmen and soldiers from Joint Task Force-Bravo, headquartered at Soto Cano Air Base in Honduras and working directly for the U.S. Southern Command, concluded an operation where they led and supported medical professionals from the U.S. military on a unique dual-nation effort to provide dental, orthopedic and vision care to hundreds of Guatemalans and Hondurans.
While JTF-B is headquartered in Honduras and regularly engages in medical operations there, the HEART 22 — which stands for Health Engagements Assistance Response Team 2022 — operation was different in at least two ways. First, HEART 22 was much larger than what JTF-B typically engages in. The event lasted longer, involved more participants, and covered two nations.
The HEART 22 operation was also unusual in that it wasn't exclusively a "humanitarian" event, but rather a partnership activity.
"Joint Task Force-Bravo is involved in a lot of medical operations in Latin America," said commander, Army Col. Phillip B. Brown Jr. "But HEART 22 was different in that it was longer, it was in two nations, it covered a lot more ground, and it involved a lot more partnering with doctors already in the region than what the JTF normally does."
Brown said a recent JTF-B surgical readiness medical mission in Belize was indicative of some of the smaller missions the task force is typically involved in.
"They were partnered alongside with Belize physicians," he said. "They were doing procedures, they were working primarily gallbladder surgeries, and hernias, and focused procedures like that. So, you have six people from JTF-B and they did about 14 procedures during that two-week period directly assisting the Belizean doctors. Clear impact to those local communities, but at a smaller scale."
The HEART 22 mission was different in scope, he said.
"They were in Honduras for approximately four weeks," he said. "You have anywhere from a medical staff underneath JTF-B from 30 to scale up to 50. So, a lot more U.S. staff involved in it. They're working in a larger-scale hospital — Hospital Escuela was one of them, which is one of the primary hospitals in Honduras. And then in Guatemala, a similar situation."
The number of procedures performed, and the number of patients seen was also greater. Between Honduras and Guatemala U.S. doctors saw about 1,000 patients, said Brown.
"That's a pretty big impact," he said. " I think for me, it's a good tie into how the Southcom [U.S. Southern Command] commander asks us to engage in the region and strengthen partnerships."
The biggest indicator of HEART 22's success, Brown said, is that requests are coming in to do it again, and that the American and Latin American doctors involved have built professional relationships they want to continue to develop.
"What we want to do is essentially do more HEART missions across the region," Brown said. "When we talk to our partner nations, they want it. It's valuable to them. So, it's not the caseload. What makes HEART valuable is the cooperation and the partnership at the provider level and at the staff level."
One example of that, he said, is that he witnessed an ophthalmology procedure where an American doctor and a Guatemalan doctor were working together to heal a patient with cataracts. Both professionals were bringing their expertise to the table and sharing with one another, Brown said.
Another example, Brown said, is that during HEART 22, U.S. military providers conducted medical training classes with the medical residents — which has impact across more than just Guatemala and Honduras.
"These are medical residents, not just from Guatemala or Honduras, but also from Mexico and Nicaragua — these are areas where we definitely have partnerships across the Southcom region," said Brown. "That's another sort of outsize impact for HEART."
Medical missions like HEART 22 are about more than just providing medical care for civilians in partner nations in Central America. They're also about showing those partner nations that the United States is dedicated to the partnerships it forms, Brown said.
"I think the message that we send throughout the region is that we are the enduring partner of choice," Brown said. "From these medical missions that have a very positive impact ... [and] it's a repeatable medical mission, whether it's a large-scale HEART or some of the smaller-scale things the JTF does, it demonstrates that we're valued, that we're trusted, and that we're the enduring partner of choice throughout the region."
Brown is new to JTF-B, and, so far, he said, especially with what he's seen on HEART 22, he's been impressed with the unit he's become a part of.
"I'm extremely proud of them," he said. "As the new guy coming in, you just don't really know how your command works and who's who and who performs at what level. It's been incredibly impressive at every turn, at every detail. Every component of the HEART mission has been professionally executed. Everywhere they've gone they've represented the United States very well. They've represented the Department of Defense very well and certainly Southcom and Joint Task Force-Bravo."
The HEART 22 mission kicked off in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, in mid-July and closed out in early September in Guatemala. About 50 U.S. military medical professionals and support personnel from both the Air Force and the Army participated in the operation.