The Miami Herald
September 7, 1999

U.S. Army medics treat Colombia's sick

 Herald Staff Writer

 HONDA, Colombia -- A U.S. Army medical team has arrived in Colombia for the
 first time since a similar U.S. mission in 1994 sparked a national uproar over
 charges that it was engaged in spying -- not humanitarian work.

 This time, a far smaller team of 43 U.S. Army health experts is offering free
 medical, dental and veterinary care.

 ``We're just here to perform a humanitarian mission,'' said Maj. Donald Tyne of a
 U.S. Army Reserve unit in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

 The team has set up a makeshift medical clinic in a school in this colonial town,
 on the banks of the rushing Magdalena River, Colombia's main artery.

 The eight-day mission, which ends Wednesday, is providing free medical care to
 about 7,000 people, some of whom have had rotten teeth extracted, received
 treatment for intestinal worms or had tropical rashes examined.

 ``What we are trying to do is make everybody feel more comfortable, giving them
 cream for sores and that sort of thing,'' Tyne said. ``If we find more urgent needs,
 we send them to the hospital. We don't do any surgery.''

 Low-key approach

 The mission has been extremely low-key, perhaps because many Colombians
 feel certain that Washington wants to invade Colombia to smash its narcotics
 trade and cripple two leftist insurgencies threatening its democratic government.
 Just last month, the newsmagazine Cambio, owned partly by Nobel Prize-winning
 writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, declared that the Pentagon had worked up a plan
 for possible intervention in Colombia.

 The State Department's third-ranking official, Thomas Pickering, later called such
 speculation ``loco,'' or crazy.

 Given the rumors about U.S. intentions, U.S. diplomats declined to say much
 about the medical mission.

 ``We have not publicized this,'' one said.

 The Colombian army, which had 10 of its own doctors and health-care workers on
 the mission, also declined to talk much about the exercise. Officers in Honda
 said they wanted it out of the news.

 Earlier `spying' incident

 The reserve is understandable, given what happened in February 1994, when a
 150-member team of U.S. Army engineers and Navy Seabees departed Colombia
 prematurely amid intense news coverage over accusations it was engaged in
 spying. The U.S. soldiers were building a four-room schoolhouse and a health
 clinic in Juanchaco, a Pacific coast town near Cali. The buildings were worth
 about $100,000 in materials paid for by U.S. taxpayers.

 Many Colombians grew suspicious when they saw tons of equipment unloaded at
 the site -- seemingly disproportionate to the task.

 Suspicions were so strong that then-President Cesar Gaviria suggested local
 townspeople in Juanchaco should keep an eye on the U.S. soldiers to ensure that
 they stuck to humanitarian efforts.

 A U.S. Army officer involved in the current mission, who spoke on condition of
 anonymity, said many of the Army reservists thought the new trip would be
 canceled up to ``the very, very last minute'' because of guerrilla violence and fears
 that the exercise could become a ``flash point'' in Colombian politics.

 ``The first sergeant almost fainted from the tension,'' the officer said.

 Most new to Colombia

 Most of the team consists of reservists from the 4224 U.S. Army Reserve
 Hospital in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Only a few had been to
 Colombia before.

 By coincidence, the U.S. Army team arrived during a national strike that saw
 protesters erect barricades on most of the nation's highways. The strike shaved
 three days off what was expected to be an 11-day exercise.

 Initial suspicions in Armero and Honda, the towns where medical care has been
 offered, quickly gave way to gratitude for the free care. The only complaints were
 from those who wanted treatment by U.S. doctors, not Colombian army

 ``I wanted the gringo doctors to look at me,'' said Nubia Bermudez, a 49-year-old
 housewife. ``They have better training in medicine.''

 For four days last week, the U.S. team provided attention to about 3,000 people
 near Armero, a town hit by a massive mudslide in 1985 that killed more than
 20,000 people.

 On Sunday, the medical team -- which includes general practitioners, surgeons, a
 dermatologist and an eye doctor -- moved to Honda, 95 miles west of Bogota,
 where it began dispensing large stocks of medicines.

 Cost in six figures

 ``It's going to cost us about $150,000, including about $65,000 in medical
 supplies,'' said Raul Duany, a spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command in
 Miami, which oversees most U.S. military operations in the hemisphere.

 Duany said the Southern Command has 83 humanitarian exercises planned in the
 hemisphere this year, offering U.S. military personnel repeated chances to deploy
 in foreign countries.

 Dr. Dick Shultz, a cardiovascular surgeon from Omaha, Neb., who is a colonel in
 the Army Reserves, winced as he placed a stethoscope on the chest of Inez
 Orozco, a 65-year-old housewife, noticing an irregularity, one of several he had
 seen in recent days.

 ``I've seen four or five heart murmurs,'' Shultz said.

 ``He told me that I have angina and that I have to go to a cardiologist,'' Orozco
 said later, adding that she appreciated the free checkup but had no money to visit
 a heart specialist.

 Standing outside the school with an infant in his arms, Carlos Fernando Franco,
 38, said his wife was getting a tooth filled.

 ``I wish they would come more often,'' he said. ``People are poor. They don't have
 money to pay doctors.''