Story by Sgt. 1st Class Corey Beal
FORT BELKNAP AGENCY, Mont. – After more than a decade of conducting operations overseas, the Army Reserve is bringing its unique capabilities home to benefit communities across America.
Localities across the nation are tapping into these skills through the DoD Innovative Readiness Training program. First authorized in 1993, IRT allows reserve component units to hone their wartime readiness through hands-on training while simultaneously providing quality services to communities throughout the U.S.
As the military’s premier force provider of organized capabilities, the Army Reserve is ideally suited to conduct these missions, said Col. Rhonda Smillie, the 88th Regional Support Command legislative liaison.
“The Army Reserve is composed almost entirely of combat support and combat service support units,” said Smillie. “Those same enabling capabilities used in operations overseas are exactly what many communities within our own country could greatly benefit from.”
Those activities include providing support such as medical and dental care, water purification, veterinary services and engineering projects.
The Army Reserve’s most recent mission took place on Fort Belknap, a geographically isolated Indian Reservation in north-central Montana. There, 33 Soldiers from subordinate units of the West Medical Area Readiness Support Group augmented the Indian Health Services Hospital.
Named Operation Walking Shield, the mission began July 21 and concluded Aug. 1. The Army Reserve staff consisted of eight different medical specialties to include lab technicians, dentists, physicians, critical care nurses, behavioral health specialists, optometry technicians and podiatrists.
The augmentation of these Army Reserve medical personnel greatly enhanced the Fort Belknap Hospital’s own medical staff of seven, enabling the clinic to nearly double the care it provides to the more than 5,000 members of the surrounding Tribes. By conclusion of the exercise, the Army Reserve Soldiers treated more than 900 patients.
Nona Longknife, credentialing coordinator for the Fort Belknap Hospital, said the addition of these medical practitioners enables the hospital staff to augment and enhance normal operations with much needed services. According to Longknife, the Army Reserve Soldiers bring specialized skills not available at the clinic. This affords some Tribal members their only opportunity to receive much needed expanded care.
“During this time of year we have more patients coming in for check-ups and physicals for stuff like sports, schools and Head Start,” said Longknife. “We also don’t have some medical specialists here like podiatrists, so many of our patients, especially our elderly, are able to get much needed care that would otherwise be unavailable.”
Capt. Mathew Plouffe, commander of the 4225th U.S. Army Hospital, said this was their third year conducting this mission and the benefits for everyone have been undeniable.
“Our Soldiers get real-world training,” said Plouffe. “Our EMTs are going on EMT runs, they’re driving the ambulance, they are picking up patients and bringing them back to the emergency room – our nurses are getting real world nursing experience, our podiatrist is treating feet – our dental techs are doing cleanings and assisting dentists who are treating real dental issues – our behavioral health specialists are working out in the field and in the clinic. This is real world training!”
In addition, Plouffe said being able to help an underserved community has been great for moral.
“Everybody is working as a team,” said Plouffe. “It certainly builds moral and cohesion being able to have an impact on a community. We are taking care of Americans. Missions like these are our only opportunity to really do that.”
Montana Senator John Walsh visited the training at Fort Belknap for himself on July 27.
According to Walsh, the unique skills the Army Reserve brings are invaluable in addressing serious community needs within our own country.
“Innovative Readiness Training missions are a win-win for the community and for the military,” said Walsh. “Operation Walking Shield at Fort Belknap is a great example of the program’s success because personnel are able to hone medical skills while helping a community in need of those services.”
Missions like these are also a great way to build relationships between communities and the Soldiers who want to make a difference, noted Walsh.
“Service members are especially important in helping communities because they are exceptionally motivated to make a difference,” said Walsh.
Smillie, who facilitated Walsh’s visit and invited all members of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said it is vital that the public and elected officials understand how Army Reserve IRT missions can benefit our communities.
“The Army Reserve is all about specialized capabilities. In addition to doctors and medical professionals, we have engineers, attorneys, transportation specialists,” said Smillie. “All these skills that enable our forces can also easily be transferred to the civilian sector and benefit our communities.”
This may be best illustrated by the example of Pfc. Johnna Snell who has paired her military occupation with her civilian career while simultaneously bettering her own community.
A member of the Crow Nation of Montana, Snell is an automated logistical technician assigned to the 4225th U.S. Army Hospital. She used her military training to qualify for her current civilian position as a supply technician for the Crow Agency Indian Health Services Hospital.
Snell said the combination of her background, military occupation, civilian occupation and current mission have all complimented each other greatly.
“I am proud to be a part of a unit that can actually help a Native American community through this program,” said Snell. “I’m also proud that I can do this for the Native people and bring this knowledge to other reservations.”
Snell has participated in Operation Walking Shield for the past three years. This year Snell served as the mission’s cultural liaison, charged with coordinating between the Tribes and the unit. According to Snell, the need for assistance is vast and the people greatly appreciate it.
“There is a need here and they struggle to find the services,” said Snell. “Every year we come back and they are excited to see us. The most rewarding thing is helping people in need.”
The value added to the Fort Belknap community is considerable in many aspects, said Longknife.
“Everybody understands that we get cut back, so we try to use everything the best we can,” said Longknife. “The services they provide let us saves for other things and prevents us from having to send an elder 200 miles away for the right care. Elders can’t travel like that all the time – it’s too hard on them.
“80,000 dollars is what I would have to pay for just three doctors to work two weeks,” continued Longknife. “With 80,000 dollars we could send one of our elders to a really good heart doctor, or have a child’s cleft pallet fixed, or have a child’s teeth fixed.”
Beyond benefitting from services the Army Reserve provides, knowing that someone cares and will help them impacts the community deeply, said Longknife.
“Our people have great appreciation for what is done here,” said Longknife. “Appreciation that the Army Reserve thinks that much of our people to take that two weeks that they could spend anywhere in the United States to do their Reserve time, and they choose to come here – and it fills the hearts of the people to think and know that somebody does care.”