COLON, PANAMA - When most people leave their ship at this port city on the tiny isthmus that separates the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, they are normally met by a local greeter, scenic tours and a cold tropical drink. For the daughter of a Keeseville couple, the scene awaiting her was much more tragic.
Navy Lt. j.g. Missie L. Leitl, daughter of Curt and Lynda Burl of Pine St., Keeseville, was one of more than 900 service members and other medical experts who daily met crowds of literally thousands of locals awaiting medical care during a four-month humanitarian and civic assistance mission at ports of call throughout Latin America and the Caribbean called "Continuing Promise 2009."
Leitl is an emergency room nurse aboard the Military Sealift Command hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, where she is not only helping assist those in dire need, but also receiving valuable training from those experiences.
Continuing Promise 2009 is a partnership with Latin America and Caribbean nations who share a common interest in making the Americas stable and secure. Through professional and military exchanges and exercises, stability, peace, and prosperity are preserved.
During the past couple of months, Leitl and her fellow shipmates have been bringing smiles to thousands of grateful local nationals throughout the Caribbean and Latin America, by putting in long hours and lots of hard work in the extreme heat, humidity, and rain.
"I work in the staff casualty receiving area. We'll respond in the event of a mass casualty or disaster situation," said Leitl, who is normally assigned to the Navy Hospital Jacksonville, Fla. "My daily duties include preparing patients for admission prior to surgery, which includes drawing blood, doing an EKG, and making sure that their radiology studies are complete."
The men and women assigned to the Comfort are providing medical and dental care both on board and on shore. They are also providing engineering assistance at various sites in the host nations by doing everything from repairing school playgrounds to renovating medical clinics.
Locally, they are trekking through the jungle on foot to help a native Panamanian tribe build a dam that will allow them to gather clean drinking water. Veterinarians and preventive medicine physicians are providing "roving" services around the countries, ensuring that the needs of the animal population are not forgotten.
Although Leitl's job is to help others, she is in turn receiving valuable training and/or great experiences from participating on this mission.
"The interaction with the multi-services, multi-national, and non-governmental organizations has been a great experience," said Leitl, who received a bachelor's degree in nursing in 2006 from California State University, Fresno. "The ability to change the view of how other countries view the United States military has been interesting."
Amongst the backdrop of picture perfect tropical paradises that the average tourist sees in the various countries that the ship visited, Leitl and the crew encountered a totally different type of scenery. They saw scores of people living in a type of poverty not seen even in the worst areas of the United States. Indoor plumbing and electricity were luxuries. In Panama, thatched huts were the standard for the Embera Tribe, one of seven native tribes of Panama.
"The thing that has left a lasting impression on me is seeing the transformation of a patient's physical deformity before surgery and after surgery," said Leitl, who has been in the military for 17 years.
As Leitl and the others journey on to Columbia, Nicaragua, and El Salvador before the end of this year's mission, they will continue to bring "comfort" to those in need.