JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. -- When this Airman dons his uniform, he flies a C-17 Globemaster III on missions transporting supplies and Airmen to where duty calls. But when he takes his uniform off, he still finds ways to make a difference in the world.
First Lt. Joey Brewer, 16th Airlift Squadron pilot, and his wife, Tori, recently returned from a two-week trip to Cambodia in support of Vets with a Mission.
Vets with a Mission is a not-for-profit agency that conducts humanitarian missions in Vietnam and Cambodia. VWAM was begun by Bill Kimball, a Vietnam veteran who served with the 1st Cavalry as a mortarman during the 1968 Tet Offensive. Kimball's overwhelming desire was to see Vietnam veterans return to Vietnam to help in the rebuilding of a country that suffered immense destruction to its infrastructure and its effect on its citizenry.
Brewer and his wife learned about this group through their church in Mount Pleasant, S.C.
"We were excited to go help others and let our actions and love for Cambodian people be our testimony about God," said Brewer. "We were nervous about what to expect."
VWAM arrived in country March 1, 2013. The nearly 70-member team consisted of dentists, dental assistants, patient services and security, medical doctors, physical therapists, prayer and counseling teams and interpreters. Brewer's main role was to aid with triage and patient services, while Tori assisted oral surgeon Dr. Tom Love, VWAM's dental coordinator. "I assisted more than 3,000 patients during the trip," said Brewer. "My job was to interview patients with the help of the interpreters and to determine the priority of patients treatments based on the severity of their condition." The two-week trip consisted of visits to four different villages in Cambodia; the Khmer Christian Center near Siem Reap, Kokpreach in the northwest corner of Cambodia, Ta Am Village, and the Vietnamese refugee floating village on Sonle Top Lake.
During their first couple of days, Brewer and his teammates hit the ground running. They first travelled to the Khmer Christian Center near Siem Reap.
Their medical clinic was divided into sections: triage, dental, medical, and prayer/counseling. The team operated on more than 1,090 medical and dental patients in the first four days and they received a much-needed weekend to recover. The rest period was very important because the next week would be very challenging for the group. In order to reach the next villages, the team would have to overcome several barriers. Along with fighting off sickness and combating 100-plus degree weather, the team had to endure several hours of travelling via seven vans and one mini-bus. In addition, some of the villages did not have electricity and VWAM had to purchase generators to bring with them.
"The second week of clinics was tiresome because we only had limited time at each village but were overwhelmed with patients," said Tori. "I was able to help with both dental and medical teams and removed several cysts and warts under the supervision of Charleston Physician Assistant Michael Overcash.
During one of their last visits, VWAM travelled to a Vietnamese refugee floating village on Sonle Top Lake and according to the Chuck Ward, VWAM executive director, "The tiger got us!," in reference to the expression "sometimes you get the tiger by the tail or the tiger gets you." "The story behind the floating village is that it began almost 40 years ago when South Vietnamese fled communist Vietnam after the war," said Brewer. "Over the course of time, children have been born there and raised to adulthood. But these people cannot have a Cambodian or Vietnamese passport, so they have no country to call their own. Birth certificates are not issued, only an identification card by Cambodian authorities with date of birth. If they go back to Vietnam, they will be imprisoned and the Cambodian government wants to keep them out on the lake because that's where the Vietnamese want them to stay." While the clinic work was tiresome and long, it was also very rewarding for the couple. "Being able to change someone's life through a 15-minute medical visit inspires me to do more," said Tori. "Another great thing about this trip was the fact that my wife and I got to do it together," Brewer said. "She's in the medical career field and it was great that I got to support her for a change and help her and others. Spouses do a lot of incredible things to support us and the demands of our jobs, but it was cool being out there participating in the humanitarian mission watching her change lives." The couple, originally from Fresno and Loomis, Calif., was able to celebrate their second anniversary March 12, 2013 in Cambodia. "This definitely made up for our first anniversary - which I was deployed," said Brewer, who deployed to Southwest Asia in 2012. Before they left Cambodia, the team treated more than 800 dental patients, providing root canals, restoration and hygiene treatments. Approximately 600 teeth were also extracted and the medical doctors saw 2,589 patients. "This was truly an amazing experience and the Cambodian people were so patient and grateful for the time and services the team provided," said the 16th AS pilot. "This could be the first and last time many of these people would ever see a doctor or dentist." To this day, Chuck Ward, VWAM executive director, has continued to establish Vets with a Mission as a humanitarian organization respected by the Vietnamese government and medical professionals from every corner of Vietnam. After this first humanitarian mission, Brewer and his wife are already looking into the future for opportunities to help make a difference in others' lives.