Vermont National Guard’s unique mission to Senegal

Published: Mar. 17, 2023 at 4:46 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont National Guard members are part of an ongoing mission that most people probably haven’t heard about. It isn’t to war zones or deployments to maintain global security with NATO partners. Instead, it’s designed to foster friendships in Senegal.

Although the west African nation is nearly 4,000 miles away from Vermont, the Green Mountain Boys have been working with the Senegalese since 2008 as part of the Guard’s State Partnership Program. That means our Guard works with local officials to bolster their military readiness, among other efforts.

Thies is a city of about 400,000 about an hour outside of Senegal’s capital, Dakar. Despite being the country’s third-largest city, its hospitals and clinics are short-staffed. But in late February, they got a boost from dozens of Vermont National Guard members on a medical training mission.

“It was wonderful. I got to do a lot of hands-on work with their staff,” said Vermont National Guard Staff Sgt. Christina Fontaine. The childbirth educator and doula had never been sent overseas in her 12 years with the Guard. But she was one of about 40 medical personnel selected for medical training in Senegal. They worked with local civilian health care providers to treat 625 patients over the span of two weeks and sharing best practices.

Fontaine says working outside of the American health care system was eye-opening. “They do a lot with lack of equipment,” she said. One of the most memorable moments was assisting a mother in giving birth. The baby was not breathing when it came out and the Guard stepped in to help resuscitate the infant.

Reporter Cat Viglienzoni: What did it feel like to help save a baby’s life?

Staff Sgt. Christina Fontaine: It was amazing because there’s that moment of fear when that baby comes out and isn’t breathing and isn’t crying and they’re just kind of limp. And then when you hear that first cry, there’s just this sudden wash of relief that goes through your body and everyone in the room was just smiling.

“That Senegalese mother is going to remember that for the rest of her life. That was a Vermont Guard member who saved that baby. You can’t replace that,” said Vt. National Guard Commander Maj. Gen. Greg Knight. He’s passionate about Vermont’s partnership with Senegal and says last month’s mission was their largest medical training exercise yet. There’s been about half a dozen of them since 2018. Doctors, nurses, physical therapists, and others hone their skills and fill a need in Senegal.

But Knight says there’s power politics at play, too. “It’s a global competition. China is a global competitor,” he said. Senegal is one of the primary peacekeeping nations in Africa. General Knight says China has been making significant investments there to extend its influence in Africa. He says the Guard’s partnership with Senegal helps keep U.S. ties to the region while strengthening Senegal’s military and civilian responses and building friendships. “That’s genuine and I can’t replicate that anywhere. This is probably one of the most significant endeavors I’ve ever had the privilege of being part of and I think most of our Guard would echo that.”

The mission was medical readiness Specialist Alex Gravel’s second time in Senegal. He was in the hospital’s surgical department and saw procedures there that he would not get to observe at home including brain surgeries, spinal fusions, and how to improvise. “There was one incident where one of the kids’ masks broke, and without thinking -- they didn’t freak out -- they just grabbed two surgical gloves, tied them together, and then hooked them around the head and tied them to the mask. and it held very well and we were all just like, I never would have thought of that,” Gravel said.

Most Senegalese speak French and other local languages. Gravel says it was a challenge they had to learn to work around. “The language barrier was kind of hard but they were really good about doing basically sign language and stuff and snapping and pointing,” he said.

Guard officials say members vie for the chance to be on these medical missions. Because of how rewarding it is. “Everybody that we talked to after was telling us that they wished that we could stay longer, that they want us to come back,” Fontaine said. “And it’s just so much positive light on the Vermont Guard and the work that we did while over there.

Reporter Cat Viglienzoni: Americans sometimes get a bad rap overseas. Do you think this helps counter some of that? Alex Gravel: Oh yeah, big time.

Vermont has two other partner nations -- North Macedonia and Austria. General Knight says he’s hoping some future efforts might combine personnel from all three countries.