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A team of Air Force medical personnel is heading to Moldova on Sunday for the first phase of Operation Provide Hope — an annual humanitarian mission funded by the State Department and staffed by the military.

The operation ultimately will upgrade two hospitals in the former Soviet Union republic with $12 million-worth of surplus medical supplies from military installations around the world. The mission also includes outfitting several rural clinics with basic medical and dental packages.

“It’s probably hard to believe the state that these places are in. These are forgotten people,” said John B. Post, deputy director for humanitarian assistance at the Department of State’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs.

Located between Romaina and Ukraine, Moldova, a small country about the size of Maryland, has a population of around 4.3 million, according to the CIA World Factbook. It is one of the poorest countries in Europe and was the first former Soviet state to elect a Communist as its president in 2001.

Post, who arrived in the capital city of Chisinau last week, is trying to coordinate the mission with other existing humanitarian efforts by the World Bank and European Commission.

“We want to get more bang for our buck so to speak,” Post said.

One component of the operation involves the State Department working with private organizations and major pharmaceutical companies to provide additional assistance in the former Soviet states. Though the military is not involved in this effort, the two sometimes overlap.

The military team — made up of participants from different services and theaters, including airmen from Ramstein and Spangdahlem air bases in Germany and RAF Lakenheath in England — changes every year, depending on which service can spare resources.

The servicemembers will first spend two weeks assessing needs in Moldova. They will return this summer to deliver and install the supplies and equipment, ranging from X-ray machines and surgical suites to bedpans and furniture. They also will train Moldovan medical workers on use of the equipment and provide translated copies of instructions.

“The idea is to not give them stuff they can’t use,” said Lou DeAndrade, chief of humanitarian assistance at the Army Medical Material Center, Europe in Pirmasens, Germany. The center collects and stores the surplus provisions for Operation Provide Hope and also sends relief packages to countries in crisis.

Most of the current stockpile came from Europe in the aftermath of the Cold War and from the Middle East after the Gulf War.

“Before the (Berlin) wall went down, we had all this war readiness material ready for literally millions of casualties,” DeAndrade said. “Same thing after Desert Shield and Desert Storm.”

Launched in 1992 under the Freedom Support Act, Operation Provide Hope was created to assist the then newly independent states of the former Soviet Union with their “transition toward democracy,” according to the State Department.

Agency officials choose a country each year based on its level of need, though politics plays an inherent role in the process, DeAndrade said.

“It can open political doors,” he said. “Just look at Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan” — which have allowed the U.S. to occupy military bases there during the war on terrorism.

“Did those countries let us in there because of the medical supplies we provided? Probably not, but it certainly didn’t hurt either,” he said.

Still, by steering clear of military hospitals and other more privileged facilities, helping average people is at the heart of the initiative, he said.

“In no uncertain terms, I know we’ve saved lives in these countries,” said DeAndrade, who has been overseeing the operation’s military component for a decade. “We’ve definitely improved the quality of care for millions of people in these countries.

Quick facts on operationEstablished by Congress and a presidential initiative in 1992 to provide humanitarian assistance to former USSR states.Funded by the Department of State, staffed by the military. (State Department also works independently with private organizations under Operation Hope.)All materials to support missions come from Department of Defense medical surplus.Medical supplies, equipment and furniture worth $284 million have been delivered.Moldova is the operation’s 23rd mission. Nine revisit missions also have been completed.The operation has completed an additional 19 special humanitarian missions, providing $9 million worth of aid to countries in crisis around the world.—Source: Department of State

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