CAMP TONDIBIAH, Niger - With a bustling room of patients waiting to see the dentists, Staff Sgt. Humberto Rodriguez Jr., skillfully shuffles patients into the dental chair for a quick exam and anesthesia, if necessary, then sends them back to the waiting room to allow the medication to numb them before extracting a tooth as he grabs two more patients.
This scene takes place on a daily basis at the Camp Tondibiah dental clinic, where the team is part of a 12-person Air Force Reserve medical team in Niger as part of a humanitarian mission. The group deployed alongside the U.S. Marine Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Initiative Mobile Training Team.
Having this steady patient flow allows the two dentists to see as many patients as possible during their long and hot workday. For Sergeant Rodriguez, an individual mobilization augmentee dental technician assigned to the 59th Dental Squadron, Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, keeping the dental chairs filled up is one of his main objectives on the mission.
"I am the dental ambassador, making sure we have patient care and patients ready to go and that my dentists are busy at all times," said Sergeant Rodriguez. "My job is to maintain the dental clinic with supplies and make the dentist's job as easy as possible under these sometimes stressful conditions."
Sergeant Rodriguez is keeping the two dentists busy, as Lt. Col Victor Brown and Maj. Joe Alvarez are seeing approximately 65 patients a day and extracting 100 teeth. The team also takes time to give oral hygiene education and distribute tooth brushes to their patients.
Both dentists come to Niger with vast overseas humanitarian experience, albeit mostly in a civilian capacity.
Colonel Brown, 914th Aeromedical Staging Squadron, Niagara Falls International Airport/ Air Reserve Base, N.Y., has 17 humanitarian missions to Haiti under his belt, but this is the first time he's deployed overseas with the Air Force Reserve.
"The military adds another dimension to the mission, like protocol, military customs and force protection, but the end product is the same result," Colonel Brown said, "providing a service to answer a need."
One of the hurdles that can get in the way during a humanitarian mission in a foreign country is the language barrier. For the dental team, the answer to that problem is Hassana Hanafi, their Nigerien translator.
"One of our biggest challenges is communication," Colonel Brown said. "Without a translator we'd strike out. She's (Hanafi) the linchpin that holds it all together."
For Mrs. Hanafi it's an opportunity to help her fellow countrymen and to practice English with Americans. "I have never traveled outside of Niger," Mrs. Hanafi said. "I learned my English in Niger by Nigerien people. I'm very glad. I'm helping my people and I'm improving my English."
One of Mrs. Hanafi's fellow Nigeriens who received dental care was Moun Kaila, a farmer who lives in Tondi Koirai, one of the eight villages the reservists are serving on this mission.
"We are too happy," Mr. Kaila said with the help of Mrs. Hanafi's translation. "I have been suffering with tooth pain for a long time. I couldn't even farm because of the pain."
For the second dentist on the team, Maj. Alvarez, his dentistry and humanitarian work has taken him around the world. "I don't know many people that have been able to practice dentistry on four continents," Maj. Alvarez said. "I can thank the Air Force Reserve for this."
"The biggest difference is that when you're wearing a uniform, you're representing the United States and all that that entails," he said. "It gives you pride. We're like ambassadors for our country."
One of the things that make this three-man office work so efficiently is they all genuinely work well with one another, although they only met when they first arrived in Niger Aug. 5.
"We have great esprit de corps and high morale," Maj. Alvarez said. "We're like a band of brothers. Even though we're busy all day, we still take time to joke around. Sometimes when we break for lunch, we can't believe half the day is gone." When working in a foreign country, medical people are often faced with new situations, both culturally and medically. For the dental team, treating every patient is sometimes a challenge.
"It's intense. The hardest part is that you have to do anything that comes in the door with limited supplies and equipment," Maj. Alvarez said. "We've risen to that challenge by exchanging ideas and techniques between ourselves."
Another thing the group agrees on is that working this humanitarian mission will be an unforgettable experience.
"By far this is the best tour I've been on in my military career," Maj. Alvarez said. "From the people I'm working with to the people I'm working on, everything's been an experience of a lifetime."
"I thank the Air Force Reserve for this chance," Colonel Brown said. "It's enriched my life more than anything I'll ever be able to contribute."