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Airmen in Damayan: AF doc fortifies partnerships, medical care during typhoon relief efforts

Capt. (Dr.) Eric Johnson, 36th Contingency Response Group Expeditionary Medicine Flight commander, reassures a patient during transport Nov. 24, 2013, as part of Operation Damayan in Tacloban, Philippines. Operation Damayan is a humanitarian aid and disaster relief operation led by the Philippine government and supported by a multinational response force. (Courtesy photo)

Capt. (Dr.) Eric Johnson, 36th Contingency Response Group Expeditionary Medicine Flight commander, reassures a patient during transport Nov. 24, 2013, as part of Operation Damayan in Tacloban, Philippines. Operation Damayan is a humanitarian aid and disaster relief operation led by the Philippine government and supported by a multinational response force. (Courtesy photo)

ANDERSEN AIR FORCE BASE, Guam -- Editor's note: This is the final article of a three-part series featuring the personal experiences of 36th Contingency Response Group Airmen who supported Operation Damayan -- a U.S. humanitarian assistance and disaster relief effort to support the Philippines in the wake of the devastating effects of Typhoon Haiyan.

The Andersen-based physician recalled conducting post-traumatic stress counseling and listening to survivors' tales of the unexpected 25-foot wall of water that hit Tacloban moments after the initial damage from the typhoon already devastated the area. Though faced with a scenario unlike his previous visit to the Philippines for an organized humanitarian mission, he used his connections and skills to maximize his contribution to the relief effort.

Capt. (Dr.) Eric Johnson, 36th Contingency Response Group Expeditionary Medicine Flight commander, hit the ground running when he arrived Nov. 14 in Tacloban, providing medical care for survivors injured from Typhoon Haiyan and aiding the safe and successful evacuation of the sick and injured.

"Captain Johnson of the 36 CRG is an exceptionally gifted and motivated physician who directly contributed to the success of the mission supporting operations in Tacloban," said Brig. Gen. James Hecker, 18th Wing commander, Yokota Air Base, Japan, who was also in Tacloban for the operation. "His hard work and dedication enabled the safe movement of casualties out of the area to higher echelons of care, undoubtedly saving many lives."

Upon arrival, Johnson was informed of the current situation in Tacloban and was updated regularly by contacts he made during humanitarian operations during Pacific Angel 2012, a previous exercise in Legaspi City, Philippines.

"Amazingly, there's a row of cell phone towers up on a ridge on the mountains west of the city that were still standing," Johnson said. "The towers provided reception for Johnson and other CRG members to coordinate with their Filipino counterparts during the operations.

"Some of our best intelligence in regards to the storm damage came from Filipino military physicians who I worked with in PACANGEL and were part of the first team on site in Tacloban. They updated me on the state of things, what they needed and what was going on in the area as soon as they arrived."

Johnson, along with his team, immediately integrated with the on-site medical team and provided care where it was needed. The team medically evacuated 748 sick and injured people from the area without any kind of system in place. Despite the lack of modern medical conveniences, there were no medical or safety incidents during the evacuation process.

Johnson's efforts during the medical evacuation process reduced the likelihood of in-flight medical emergencies, according to Hecker. He said the doctor's performance received unsolicited praise from the Australian medical team, Philippine military physicians, U.S. Navy Sailors and U.S. Marines on the ground.

Johnson expressed his appreciation for the physicians and volunteers he worked with and said the success of Operation Damayan would not have been possible without team effort. Johnson also attributes his effectiveness in Operation Damayan from being a member of the 36th CRG. He said the unique training he received provides him with multiple skill sets that most physicians do not normally gain from a clinical setting - skill sets that enable him to be flexible in any given scenario and postured for contingency and humanitarian operations.

"We're trained to know how a contingency response group works and how to fall into a humanitarian aid situation and immediately start working," Johnson said. "Along with that, we are required to follow a state of readiness for CRG members. We were built to deploy within 12-hours' notice, so we have to maintain all of our personal and household affairs in order at all times. We want to use those hours before a deployment to plan for what we're going to do when we get there."

Johnson said that seeing one of the most devastating effects of a natural disaster and seeing it improve more every day made him proud of being part of the Operation Damayan.

"The second to the last day I was there, I walked with the chaplain through some of the barangays (villages) that were hit really hard," he said. "Listening to the survivor stories while simultaneously hearing the 'tap-tap-tap' of hammers as the villagers try to rebuild their village -- it was remarkable. I am amazed by the optimism and resiliency of the Filipinos and impressed to see people who have lost so much still smile and press on in face of adversity."