By Cadet Mercedes Yurkovich-
When I originally found out that I had been selected for the DOMREP mission, I could not help myself from musing about white, sandy beaches and sunshine. Many people travel to the island of Hispaniola to escape grey winters, drown out old beau sorrows, or find consolation with their toes at the water’s foamy edge. Upon arrival into the Barahona province—a vicinity located in the southwest and huddled next to Haiti—I realized that the Caribbean dreamland had secrets of its own.
Poverty, starving dogs, trash and metal strewn along the roadside, children with torn clothes and sad eyes—I immediately retracted my initial vision of the Dominican Republic. Per my mission commander, cadets were required to be fluent in Spanish, prepare a ten-minute presentation and write a 5-8 page paper regarding any hot-topic item in the region. Ten cadets and two cadre members flew to the city of Santo Domingo where we met with both U.S. Active and Reserve units.
Serving as translators, my CULP team and I worked with U.S. Army and civilian dentists; every day we became integrated into the Dominican culture and lifestyle. I primarily worked in the extraction tents, which included talking to the local populace and translating for the dentists as to what kind of procedure was necessary.
I loved it.
My Spanish-speaking skills excelled within a matter of days and I made friends with many of the children who swept through our tent. Dominicans were extremely thankful to speak their native language freely with me as well; I have taken Spanish for years and I have never felt so good about being able to communicate outside of English.
Wearing scrubs and my army greens, the Dominican people looked up to my teammates and me for reassurance and answers to their pain. For roughly three weeks I lived on a Forward Operating Site (FOS) in tent city; mosquito nets and my cot were my best friends along with my shower shoes.
I translated for dentists and hygienists from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m. every day. With sand lost in my hair and the sun’s evidence on my face and arms, I never wanted to leave our work site. We worked about 20 minutes from the FOS; while I enjoyed practicing Spanish, the kids were my favorite part.
They taught me Spanish insults and Dominican games. They also loved playing with my ‘white girl’ hair. Their favorite games consisted of push up contests and learning more about our soldiers. Many of the women asked if I was married or had children yet. When I told them ‘no’ to both, they looked bewildered and confused. If a woman living in the Dominican Republic or Haiti did not have a man or at least one child by the age of 20, she was considered unusual. I met many teenage girls with children and baby bumps daily.
Another interesting part about this mission was that it was a joint mission. I worked alongside the U.S. Army, Air Force, Marines, NGOs, Canadian Army, Peruvian Army, Columbian Army and Dominican Army and Navy. I spoke to the Peruvian officers the most—they only spoke Spanish and they said that living on a FOS with English-speakers was difficult but they enjoyed working with Americans. Every night at 7 p.m. , one of our cadets would head over to the TOC and listen-in on the AAR of the day. Dentists, engineers and PSYOP alike discussed the “goods” and “bads” of the day with the commanding officer running the Beyond the Horizon Mission. The whole process was amazing.
As cliché as it sounds, my outlook on my own life has changed due to this trip.
I saw children muddle through dirty needles and trash to look for MRE remnants. I saw four-week old puppies traveling through narrow streets looking for a place to stay for the night. I saw weathered men and women look at me as if I were their answer to revitalize their impoverished lives. And still yet—with so much pain, sickness, poverty, crime—Dominicans still smile. The biggest difference between our country and theirs is demeanor and resilience.
An old woman hugged me tightly for giving her grandson a toothbrush, and kids made me necklaces of shells in order to convince me to not fly home to the States. It took every ounce of me to board the bus on the last day at the work site. Children chased the bus for nearly a quarter mile down the cramped streets before finally giving up and waving at the rear view mirror. Never in my life have I met such incredible, genuine people.
Our last few days while in-country consisted of exploring Santo Domingo, the capital. My team and I interacted with the Dominican Army and Naval Academies; both academies marched for us and sang cadences—their style is vastly different from our own. We also explored underground caves, wandered around old lighthouses and visited the beach. The atmosphere between the capital and the other areas of the country was so different. People of all ethnicities drove in Mercedes-Benz cars and ate at fancy, dreamlike restaurants. This Dominican Republic was vastly different from the one I had known for three weeks and was the misconstrued vision and cover-photo the rest of the world knew.
Overall I loved my experience and am so fortunate to have had the opportunity. I still miss those kids; while I taught them about American life, they taught me to appreciate what I have and to expand my vision beyond worrying about what I plan on doing for the weekend.
(see http://www.dvidshub.net/video/338287/translating-cadets#.VA4EU0D_440 for a video-news spot on the cadets work in the medical exercise.)