FORT BELKNAP AGENCY, Mont. –
Spc. Kaley Schulten and Sgt. Amanda Chadwick, both Army Reserve dental assistants, were excited when they learned their unit was selected to provide real world medical services at the Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana as part of the Department of Defense Innovative Readiness Training program.
The two Soldiers, both members of the Army Reserve Medical Command’s 7214 Medical Support Unit based in Garden Grove, California, welcomed the opportunity to train in their military skills while assisting the local community.
“This is the most hands-on, realistic training I’ve ever gotten in the Army.” said Schulten, a student from San Clemente, California studying for a degree in Homeland Security. “We’ve been here three days and have had the chance to not only refresh our training, but also learn new things.”
The Department of Defense Innovative Readiness Training program teams federal agencies with local communities in need, to provide no cost medical, dental, optical and veterinary services, while simultaneously providing training for our military personnel to ensure they are prepared to deploy.
“The dental field is always advancing,” said Chadwick, a resident of Leona Valley, California, who works at a bulk wholesale company in her civilian career. “When I went to advanced individual training we took X-rays with film. Taking part in (Innovative Readiness Training) missions like this lets us train in our military skills and get back into it.”
In partnership with the Fort Belknap Agency, a team of 35 physicians, physician’s assistants, nurses, a psychologist, a behavioral health technician, a pharmacist and pharmacy technician, dentists, dental assistants, medics, a veterinarian, animal care specialists and support staff augmented the existing rural health system.
COVID-19 has at times resulted in as much as a three-month backlog in appointments, according to Jessica Windy Boy, chief executive officer for the Indian Health Service Fort Belknap Service Unit. The Indian Health Service, a federal agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, provides a comprehensive health service delivery system for approximately 2.6 million American Indians and Alaska Natives who belong to 574 federally recognized tribes in 37 states.
“We are definitely fulfilling a need in the community,” said Maj. Bill Stahlberg, a physician assistant from Mount Vernon, Washington. “I wish we could be here longer than the two weeks.”
Trish Heide, a registered nurse from Chinook, Montana employed by the Fort Belknap Hospital agreed. “The extra help mean we can see more people, especially with school starting up. The Soldiers have been very polite, quick to learn, and they’re all go-getters.”
In addition to the medical services, veterinary services are also important to the community.
“We started a spay and neuter program here in 2004,” said Greg Sears, animal control officer at the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. “I was having to put down 204 animals per year on average prior to that. Having this program has reduced that to around six, mostly for being overly aggressive. We rely on volunteer veterinarians for the program so having a veterinarian detachment come in and help out like this is a huge pressure release and helps reduce the backlog, especially in a pandemic environment like we’re in,” he added.
The mission has a significant impact on the Soldiers supporting the event as well.
“It’s excellent training, and we’re really making an impact,” said Maj. Emilee Alms, a veterinarian from Arden Hills, Minnesota “It’s really good experience for our animal care specialists and really prepares us for mobilizations and being able to operate in more austere conditions.
I never do this much surgery in one day, so this really helps hone skills,” said Alms. “We’re performing surgery on animals across the spectrum, very old, very young, in heat, weeks after having given birth. We don’t see that in private practice and it’s a more complicated procedure, so this helps develop skills that are great to not only bring home to my civilian practice, but to have ready for deployments working with military working dogs.”
“This is the reason I joined the Army,” said Spc. Jayden Vegara, an animal care specialist from Logan, Utah. “I love working with the local community, and they’re very receptive because they care so much about their animals. It’s hard to get this much surgical experience anywhere else.”
The value of the training opportunity was readily apparent to Maj. Gen. Jonathan Woodson when he visited the unit mid-mission.
“The mission is going great; we’re adding critical staff to help the local community deal with back-ups resulting from the pandemic and staffing challenges, we’re identifying and making appropriate coordination with local community assets, and Soldier morale is outstanding,” Woodson said. “This is real work we’re making happen, and it’s a two for one. We’re providing a valuable service to the local community, and the hands-on training ensures readiness to handle any mission for which the units are likely to be tasked.”