CASS LAKE, Minn. –
IRT is an acronym that may not be known by many people, especially if you’ve never participated in the program. It stands for Innovative Readiness Training, and Army Reserve Soldiers from various medical units commanded by the 807th Medical Command (Deployment Support) came here the first two weeks of August 2021 for the mission.
The value of this IRT – called Walking Shield – is twofold. First, it provides quality, no-cost medical care to members of the local community. This included the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and people living in the surrounding communities. Care included dental, optometry, audiology, preventive medicine, behavioral health, COVID vaccinations and veterinary services. Second, it increases the deployment readiness of the Army Reserve medical units that took part in the mission.
Another advantage to Army Reserve medical professionals is the chance to work with local health care professionals and those from the Indian Health System in delivering care. About 65 Army Reserve Soldiers participated alongside four from the IHS.
Maj. Jason Baumann, officer in charge of Walking Shield and with the 330th Medical Brigade, Fort Sheridan, Ill., noted that “COVID has impacted all facets of society, and with that, access to medical care. This is an under resourced community, giving us a meaningful opportunity to provide care.”
Hundreds of hours go into planning and executing a multi-faceted mission like Walking Shield, “with the common goal to help those in need,” said Lt. John. Naegeli, Indian Health System liaison. “We’ve had tremendous support from the community.”
As of Aug. 8, services had been provided to more than 450 people, and nearly 225 veterinary surgeries and vaccinations had been performed.
It has been three years since an IRT was held at the Cass Lake site.
Major Gen. Joseph J. Heck, commanding general, 807th MCDS, toured the Walking Shield site toward the end of the operation. “These are critically important missions,” he said of the IRT. “It provides a unique opportunity to take care of the local population. It’s also a great opportunity for Soldiers to take part in an actual mission.”
Heck highlighted another advantage of the IRT: “This addresses the growing military-civilian divide. Getting out into the local population illustrates the important work we do at home, and maybe younger people will consider military service.”
Naegeli pointed out the value of the partnership with Army Reserve. “Throughout the pandemic we’ve learned that collaboration is the key to a successful mission. Each organization has its strengths and when we partner together, our impact on the community drastically increases,” he said.
Private 1st Class. Adam Wright, a 68E dental specialist, used what he learned in Advanced Individual Training during Walking Shield. He also learned new skills, such as sterilizing dental equipment. He likes participating in the mission because he enjoys learning about the “Native Americans who live here, and learning about new cultures.”
Another Soldier, Pfc. Kenzie Green, a 68C licensed practical nurse, felt the training was meaningful. “I think it’s awesome seeing the way the community reacts and how much they appreciate our services.” Green is with the 801st Field Hospital, Fort Sheridan.
Over on the side of the house serving fuzzy four-legged friends was Sgt. Krystal Limas, a 68T, animal care specialist. “I absolutely love animals,” she said. Limas is with the 149th Veterinary Services from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. She was busy assisting the vets with spaying and neutering.
Lieutenant Col. Patrick Pischke, OIC of the behavioral health services, with the 785th Medical Detachment, Fort Snelling, Minn., was joined by other military social workers and 68X behavioral health specialists from the 330th Medical Brigade and 801st Combat Support Hospital. He explained that the education services offered, such as suicide awareness and substance abuse reduction, made the mission unique. Also offered were mindfulness techniques, coping skills and general counseling.
“With the Native American population there are a lot of health concern,” Pischke said. “We touched bases with the local providers to learn where the need was greatest. Our services have been well received.”
Pischke went on to explain that the services provided in a civilian setting are distinctly different from an austere environment during a deployment or on the battlefield. “We’re not working with Soldiers but civilians. We’re using our military assets to help our own Americans. It’s good for the recipients, and it’s good for Army Reserve Soldiers to apply their skills in a real-world environment.”
One of the members of the Leech Lake Ojibwe tribe who received medical care was Tawana Fairbanks, who’s lived in the area for more than 40 years. She received services from dental, audiology, behavioral health workshops and veterinary services. She noted how quickly she was able to get glasses. “I was tested one day and got my glasses the next day, and they were free.”
Fairbanks also appreciated the valuable behavioral health workshops that were also at no cost.
She hoped more of the people in her community would take advantage of the medical services the next time the IRT comes to Cass Lake.