Missions to extreme-cold climates are nothing new for members of Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s 446th Airlift Wing, which flies cargo to research bases in Antarctica each year.
But 11 airmen from the Air Force Reserve unit will soon embark on a mission that’s a bit similar – or the exact opposite, depending on your view. They’ll take part of a joint-service humanitarian mission that will provide medical care to people living in a handful of villages in a remote corner of northwestern Alaska.
“Those villages are so remote, they just don’t see a lot of regular medical care,” said Senior Master Sgt. Margaret Anderson, a logistician and the senior noncommissioned officer overseeing Lewis-McChord’s participation in the event.
Airmen from the 446th Airlift Wing will run the logistics of setting up and breaking down the makeshift military camp and ensure cargo can flow to the remote sites. The wing will also send a pharmacy technician to help with medical care.
The 16th annual mission in the villages outside Kotzbue – a town about 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle – begins today and runs for two weeks. An array of medical professionals like obstetricians, pediatricians, dentists, optometrists, internal-medicine doctors and veterinarians will provide care for the villages, whose remoteness can make routine medical care a difficult chore for its residents.
About 230 people from the Air Force, Army and Navy – the majority of whom are from the National Guard or Reserve – will participate in the operation. The medical teams will be airlifted via Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters or C-23 Sherpa fixed-wing cargo planes.
The medical crews will stay in the villages and work out of a medical clinic of the local school. Operation Arctic Care is the largest recurring humanitarian mission of its kind, according to the Air Force.
The mission has been a popular assignment, said Anderson, a 45-year-old Tacoma resident and full-time logistics management specialist for the Air Force. And it provides a way for airmen to train in a real-world environment with a harsh climate but without the dangers of trips to a combat zone.
“When our chief from (the Air Force Reserve Command) brought this to our attention at a conference last year, so many people raised their hands to go that he said, ‘OK, I really can only have a few people do this,’” she said.