FORT POLK — A two-week Dental Readiness Training Exercise took place Sept. 2-15 in Honduras.

Lt. Col Paul Colthirst, Fort Polk Dental Activity commander and Surgeon General Dental Public Health deputy consultant, traveled with two Fort Polk dental assistants, Cpl. James Chun, Fort Polk Chesser Dental Clinic noncommissioned officer in charge, and Spc. Bianca Ortiz, Fort Polk Shira Dental Clinic noncommissioned officer in charge.

They joined a team of 15 DENTAC Soldiers from all over the United States including Fort Carson, Colorado; Fort Hood, Texas; and Fort Riley, Kansas, to take part in the training mission.

“Two or three people from each post joined the dental team, in addition to three individuals from Task Force Bravo — the military presence stationed in Honduras,” said Colthirst.

The mission’s purpose was to have the team deploy and conduct dental procedures in a logistically challenging environment to prepare a “Ready Medical Force” for future engagements.

The Dental Readiness Training Exercise began in Honduras in the mid 90s, said Colthirst.

“Because the community knows we are coming, Task Force Bravo works with them and does a lot of preplanning to prioritize who we are going to see. While there, we saw the most difficult and needy patients. It’s almost as though they wait for us each year to get help and we do what we can,” he said.

When the Fort Polk team landed in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, Colthirst said his first impression was that Honduras is a beautiful country, but one that he and his team could see was economically challenged due to congestion and the state of housing.

“You can extrapolate from those visual cues that the population was most likely to be deprived medically and dentally,” he said.

There is a real lack of oral care there, said Colthirst. “For example, in the United States the average 5-7 year old will have about one or two cavities. What we are finding in the children of Honduras is a mouth full of cavities. If you are looking at it from an economic and oral health standpoint, it’s very poor,” he said.

Chun said the lack of oral education was difficult to witness.

“Parents and children have been told that taking care of their baby teeth isn’t important because those teeth can be pulled. Every patient told us that. Their teeth were in such bad shape. It’s not just cavities in one or two teeth, it’s their whole mouth,” he said.

“I think they have access to toothbrushes and toothpaste, but they don’t see the importance of them. They weren’t taught to use them like we are.”

The dental team did what they could for their patients, but it’s not the definitive care that could be provided in the United States, said Colthirst.

“It’s a level of triage, the same thing we do on the battlefield. We try to do the very best we can for the patient even if we can’t fix everything,” said Colthirst.

Colthirst said the language barrier was difficult to overcome, but toward the end of the mission everyone on the dental team was able to speak a few Spanish words. But some things don’t require words.

“After we finished working on patients, the children would give us hugs, even after they cried (during treatment). Somehow they knew they needed these treatments and that we were trying to help. That is one of the most memorable things about this trip for me,” he said.

The reaction to simple gifts was something Ortiz said she would never forget. “We gave the kids a gift from a goodie bag after their appointment was over. We had a 17-year-old patient come in for treatment and he got to pick something from the bag. He picked a soccer ball. Seeing the smile on his face was so special. It’s easy to get a new soccer ball here if we want one, but these kids don’t have the resources to do that. He was so excited about that ball. It broke my heart,” she said.

In addition to helping children in need, the training mission prepared the Soldiers for issues that might arise during a deployment.

For instance, the dental team worked with limited supplies, said Colthirst.

“We aren’t going to deploy with everything at our disposal. Things like supplies and medication are in shorter supply. That actually trains Soldiers how to go out on the battlefield, utilize their resources and provide the best care,” he said.

Knowing you use what you have on hand and find a solution to accomplish the mission gives you confidence when you are down range, said Chun.

“We use an isolite on almost a daily basis in dentistry. It’s like a suction device, but we didn’t have one in Honduras. So some of the doctors jerry-rigged some equipment and created one with what we had on hand. Learning to make do with what you’ve got is an important lesson. It’s great training because when you are deployed you don’t have everything you need. When you don’t have a cotton roll, what do you use?” he asked.

Colthirst said he was impressed with the ability of the Honduras dental team to work together to accomplish the training mission.

“We did this with individuals who have never worked together before, but from day one it was as though they had known each other for years. It goes to show that Army training works because Soldiers join to execute a mission flawlessly no matter where we train. Every one of the team members jumped in to help each other. Everyone meshed,” he said.

The dental team treated 180 Honduran patients, said Colthirst.

“That humanitarian effort not only resulted in the gratitude of the children we treated, but also provided the dental team with the opportunity to up their professional skill levels, improve leadership abilities, ingenuity and resilience.

In turn, this developed Soldiers who are mentally and professionally ready to deploy in any environment,” he said.