HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah – A 419th Fighter Wing reservist spent two weeks in remote regions of northwest Alaska last month, providing eye care to locals with limited access to medical resources.
Senior Airman Elliott Bull, optometry journeyman in the 419th Medical Squadron, deployed as part of Arctic Care 2018, a DOD-sponsored program that takes medical, dental, vision, and veterinary care to 12 Alaskan villages. The program offers hands-on training for reservists from all U.S. military services, as well as Canadian armed forces.
“It’s a completely different world doing optometry on the go,” Bull said. “They didn’t have optometry clinics there, so we had to bring everything with us, all of our equipment.”
Although the region has some existing facilities, they don’t offer the breadth of medical care available in more highly populated areas, Bull said.
Extreme weather, such as high snowfall and freezing winds, and limited access to the region are also challenges in getting medical care to locals. Bull and his team were transported to the small towns of Shungnak and Deering by helicopter.
“This was good training for future deployments in austere conditions,” he said. “We can set up a clinic in about 20 minutes and start taking patients immediately.”
Bull spent most of his time prescreening patients, which includes various tests to determine their visual health.
While off duty, he was able to form bonds with locals and engage their culture. Bull said the Shungnak community, located about 450 miles northwest of Anchorage, taught them how to skin and butcher a caribou. The town is home to fewer than 300 people, according to a U.S. census.
“We interacted with the Shungnak community a lot,” Bull said. “We played a basketball game against the local league champs and the whole town turned up. Everyone was super friendly and welcoming.”
Aside from serving part time in the 419th MDS, Bull is a full-time student at Brigham Young University in Rexburg, Idaho, studying accounting.
“This was a unique experience to help people who don’t get many opportunities to be seen by an optometrist,” Bull said. “I’ve been given opportunities in the Air Force Reserve to do things I never would’ve been able to do otherwise.”