Army Doctors Fight Own Thai Battle
A dentist dressed in military fatigues bends over his patient in a tin-roofed shed. His arms jerk from side to side, and a crushed tooth rolls off the patient’s lower lip.
It is another victory for the U.S. Army.
While about 3,000 U.S. and Thai soldiers a few miles away are battling the “enemy” with guns and rockets in an annual military exercise called Cobra Gold, U.S. military doctors and dentists are battling the age-old enemies of injury and disease with vitamins, medicine and chrome-plated dental pliers.
“We’ve seen the entire gamut from mundane illnesses to life-threatening diseases,” said Col. Lionel Nelson, the supervisor of the Medical Civic Action Project at Ban Nong Sua, about 250 miles northwest of Bangkok.
A Thai medic with a bullhorn keeps the lines of villagers moving through the improvised clinic held in a 90-foot, open-sided shed covered with corrugated tin.
Dozens of villagers, dressed in the loose pants and sarongs of the countryside, point out their aches to Americans who have picked up a smattering of the difficult Thai language.
Staff Sgt. Robert Bean of Los Angeles passes out everything from thyroid medicine to vitamins.
On an average day, dentists pull 120 teeth. In a month of work, U.S. and Thai military personnel have treated more than 12,000 patients.
During Cobra Gold, U.S. military teams also focused on preventing illness by building six water tanks and drilling three wells to provide safer water supplies in the area.
Nelson, on his third tour in Thailand as a reserve officer in the U.S. Army, speaks well of Thai medical care in the rural areas.
“It’s just that there is not enough,” he said.
“One of the criticisms of this type of operation is that you tend to give . . . temporary care,” Nelson said. As a solution, Nelson’s 20-person Thai-U.S. team is focusing on teaching dental hygiene.
“Education is the most important thing we can leave behind,” said Nelson, who lives in Los Altos, Calif.
While Thailand’s economic growth has brought Western medical methods, it has also brought Western medical problems.
“This year we are concentrating on pesticide poisoning. It’s a big problem over here,” Nelson said. Liver damage, skin rashes and blood disorders brought on by inhalation of toxic chemicals have all become more common.
Practicing in Ban Nong Sua’s no-frills medical barn gives Nelson an opportunity to learn first-hand about many illnesses Western doctors only read about.
“There is a lot of parasitic infection, malaria, dengue fever, worm diseases and skin rashes that you just don’t see in the United States,” Nelson said.
“It’s basically what it was all about when you went to medical school. There are no frills. There is no monetary reward here. It’s strictly the joy of helping people who are really in need of being helped.”