GUAYNABO, Puerto Rico —
At every Innovative Readiness Training event there is a community partner: an agency or group that applies and asks for support in their area. IRT Ola de Esperanza Sanadora here is unique in that its community partner is also a member of the Puerto Rico Air National Guard.
Air Force Col. Victor Toraño wears two hats for this mission. For his full-time job as the state medical director for Puerto Rico’s Mental Health and Anti-Addiction Service Administration — the agency that applied for Defense Department support — he assisted in applying and coordinating planning for the training event. As the Puerto Rico Air National Guard’s state air surgeon, he liaised with Puerto Rico National Guard units on military logistics.
IRT Sanadora is a health care training mission involving more than 200 sailors, soldiers and airmen from the Air National Guard, Navy Reserve, and active-duty Army and Navy. Part of a long-running DoD initiative led by the Air National Guard, the mission operated in four clinic locations in Cataño, Guaynabo, Humacao and Yabucoa from Aug. 31 to Sept. 7. Six days into the mission, 8,200 medical, dental and vision care procedures had been performed across all four sites, representing about $770,000 in patient care.
Communities in Need
“Almost everyone was affected by the hurricane in one way or another,” Toraño said while discussing conditions on the island after Hurricane Maria. “We are trying to really reach out to people and see how they’re doing because sometimes we tend to forget about our emotions and how we’re doing regarding our mental health.”
ASSMCA determined which communities needed support and had facilities that could accommodate military clinic needs, said Suzanne Roig-Fuertes, ASSMCA administrator.
“We have people who live around the island and go into the communities, house by house, school by school. So we know where the emotional need is,” she said of a project her agency runs called Projecto Animate Cheer.
Many elderly people’s families left the island following the hurricane, leaving them alone, she said. If they can’t see well, they are more accident-prone. An eye exam and corrective lenses can help them continue living independently.
Eye exams and dental cleanings can impact people’s self-esteem, Roig-Fuertes said.
“They are doing something for themselves,” she said. “All the people in Puerto Rico are doing a lot of things for others. But sometimes we do a lot of things for others and we forget about ourselves.”
The ASSMCA and DOD partnership allows for co-located physical and mental health care during the mission, said Toraño, who has worked for ASSMCA for 17 years. Patients can get everything in a one-stop shop.
Toraño said participating airmen and sailors have an opportunity to both learn and give back.
“There are airmen and sailors who are from Puerto Rico so they’re getting to give back to Puerto Rico, to their people after such a disaster,” he said. “It gives them at least — I know it gives me — special satisfaction giving back to the people.
“They’re putting their skills to practice, really doing for the population what they are called to do in case they are called to active duty and in case of an emergency. I think it’s a win-win situation both for the Sailors and Airmen, but also the community who benefits,” Toraño said.
Switching between ASSMCA and Air National Guard uniforms this week, Toraño said his first IRT has been a learning experience for both of his roles.
“I have enjoyed specifically meeting and being with people from all over the United States, who also wear the same uniform that I do and people who are very enthusiastic about going somewhere and helping people they don’t even know,” he said. “That in itself just fills me with a lot of joy.”