'An indelible footprint': Army Reserve offers free medical care medical at Bena school
BENA—For parents like Bonita Conner, the services offered at the free clinic under way at Bena's Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig are impossible to pass up.
Conner plans to take each of her eight children to the temporary clinic before it wraps up Thursday. On Monday, her twin daughters sat through dental checkups and her son got his eyes checked—all at no cost to the family.
"I came out today because of the dental part, the little ones don't have any dental insurance, so this is a good way to get all their teeth fixed and their fillings done at no cost," Conner said. "For people that don't have health insurance or dental, this is really big."
The nine-day clinic, dubbed "Walking Shield," is held each year by the U.S. Army Reserve as a training exercise, meant to serve the community while preparing military medics for situations they might encounter in the field.
Thirty-eight uniformed Army personnel—who travelled to Minnesota from Kentucky—provide physicals, eye exams, tooth extractions and fillings, mental health screenings and other services to the public at no cost, and attempt to connect community members with resources outside of the clinic.
Lt. John Naegeli, a pharmacist with Indian Health Services in Cass Lake and a liaison between the community and the Army, said the clinic is meant to supplement services provided by IHS and other agencies.
"Although Cass Lake IHS and the surrounding communities have great health services there is a high demand for health care needs in our community," Naegeli said, referencing a recent study that ranked Cass and Beltrami counties as some of the unhealthiest of the state's 87 counties.
The annual clinic changes locations each year. This year, the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig hosted the Army. Classrooms became triage areas, eye clinics, dentist's offices and a pharmacy. Leech Lake Ambulance Service personnel waited outside of the school in case a patient needed more help than the clinic could provide.
While the Army hopes the clinic will better serve people like Bonita Conner and her children, the personnel providing care also benefit. Maj. Omar Nava, the officer in charge of the "mission," said that by performing triage in the school's gym, the combat medics could be preparing for future work with the Army.
"The soldiers, in their normal duties in the U.S. Army Reserve, can provide medical services in a local community, in a foreign country in a community, but it could also be under duress, so here they're getting to practice skills of measuring vital signs, performing brief examinations," Nava said. "They get an opportunity to see chronic illnesses they wouldn't normally see in otherwise healthy active soldiers. That's a big plus."
Since the clinic opened its doors July 10, the optometrists, dentists, nurses, medics and techs have seen more than 200 patients and provided 1,225 services. Though the assembled personnel cannot treat every ailment, Nava said their other main goal is to connect people with outside services and get them on the road to recovery.
"Even if all you are doing is raising the awareness of the people here, resources available to you and then helping them get access to it...if that's all you're doing, then I'll tell you that's an indelible footprint that you can provide to the community," Navas said.