NCO puts life on the line around the world

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Nick Przybyciel
  • 446th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Think Rambo armed with a stethoscope instead of a 30-inch knife, and you get Tech. Sgt. Christopher Hamel from the 446th Aeromedical Staging Squadron. 

The volunteer work this McChord Reservist does in his spare time has actually been more perilous than his two military deployments to Iraq. As a member of the non-profit organization Volunteer Medics Worldwide, Sergeant Hamel has literally risked his own life on several occasions to bring medical care to the poorest of the world's poor. 

There was the time in Ethiopia where he had to bribe a policeman to protect him from a frenzied mob. On a separate mission to Tibet, he was arrested and detained by Chinese police. 

The good days aren't that much better. Traveling through the Third World requires sleeping in squalid hotel rooms without heat or even any electricity, being extorted by unscrupulous locals, and contracting a whole slew of exotic illnesses, all on a daily basis. 

If this sounds like an insane way to spend your free time, it only gets crazier. 

Sergeant Hamel loves the volunteer work he does with VMW so much that he actually pays for what many would call misery - nearly $5,000 to date for two separate missions. What he gets in return is something money cannot buy. 

"It really changes your perspective on life, when you put forth your own money and hard work to help others. When you spend time in a country where people make less than $1 per day, it does change the way you look at things and makes you realize what's important," he said. 

After reading about VMW, Sergeant Hamel knew he'd found his calling. The non-profit organization is dedicated to providing basic needs for individuals around the world by providing medical care, food services and education. As a medical professional and someone who "always had a wanderlust for travel," VMW was right up Sergeant Hamel's alley. 

Founded and led by a former Marine Corps machine gunner-turned-doctor, VMW organizes free medical care clinics in some of the world's poorest and most dangerous areas. 

"We go almost anywhere one could imagine, but we won't go anywhere there is a possibility that we would be helping terrorists," said Gerald Flint, VMW founder. 

VMW operates on a shoestring budget, with its members often investing their own money on supplies and travel costs. Missions typically last two to three weeks, but some can last a few months. Volunteers have served across the world, from Peruvian villages on the Amazon River, to war-ravaged cities in the country of Georgia. 

Getting to where help is most-needed can be perilous. Sergeant Hamel's travel journal is replete with stories of terrifying flights in rickety aircraft and white-knuckled taxi rides through the streets of India. Along the way he's been harassed by nearly anyone you could think of, from corrupt government officials to armed militias. 

Once VMW volunteers like Sergeant Hamel actually make it to their destinations, they establish and run clinics that offer basic medical and educational services, focusing on ophthalmology and preventing blindness. While decent eyesight may seem like a trivial issue compared to some of the other disorders plaguing the third world, it's actually an issue with huge consequences. 

"Blindness is so prevalent in the Third World, but it's such a treatable thing," Sergeant Hamel said. "One thing a lot of people don't realize is the impact that blindness can have on someone like a woman in Africa. A lot of them use their hands to make things, and that income can support their whole family. If they can't see what they're doing, they can't work and their entire family could go hungry as a result." 

However, there's a very easy and cheap solution that VMW offers. By setting up free eye clinics and providing villagers with donated glasses--the same ones you can buy at a grocery store for about $1 - poor people can continue to work and make a living. 

"Most people think that if you donate $1 for rice, once someone eats that rice it's all gone and nothing has really been changed as a result. But, by donating a $1 pair of glasses, you're enabling a poor person to continue to work and provide food for the family. It's a cheap, sustainable solution," Sergeant Hamel said. 

In order to provide this critical service, VMW relies on a loose network of volunteers and donors. Many of them are either former or current military members. 

"Many of our volunteers are former military members from all branches, and from several other nations as well," said Mr. Flint. "The military teaches a person attention to detail, situational awareness and how to basically survive and operate in very difficult environments. My own prior military service and the skills I leaned in training have been of great use to myself and our teams in the field." 

Conversely, the experience Sergeant Hamel has gained by volunteering with VMW also helps in his military career. Not only has he honed his medical skills while on the missions, but has also gained the respect of his leadership as a result, receiving the Presidential Volunteer Service Award last year in recognition of his service. 

And that could be the best thing about volunteering - it's a sacrifice that benefits everyone, even the one doing the actual sacrificing.