PACIFIC OEAN (NNS) -- Pacific Partnership, with 2018 marking the 13th iteration of the event, brings together a vast array of military personnel from countries including the U.S., United Kingdom, Australia, and Japan. In each demographic, you'll find personnel who are on their first, second, or even third trip to the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM).
But only one participant this year can claim the crown of "most familiar firsthand" with the FSM islands. He is Lt. Matt Thomas, an audiologist stationed at Navy Environmental Preventative Medicine Unit 6 in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, with 18 years of service in the active duty and Reserves.
This is Thomas' third time to Yap...but ninth overall to Micronesia. He's not a diving enthusiast, exploring the countless reefs under the sea in his off duty time. Nor is this his ninth Pacific Partnership - indeed, it is his first time as part of the mission. Rather, he has made it his focus to bring his specialty of audiology to a place where there is no native support, time and time again.
A native son of El Paso, Texas, and University of Texas graduate, Thomas found himself working for a baseball team and being less than impressed with the "grunt work" the job entailed.
"During my breaks, I would read, mostly history. I was a history major, and I wanted to work overseas when I got out of college, but I was not doing that. So I put it all together and figured the Navy would be the way to make that happen," Thomas explained.
Thomas pursued a career as a surface warfare officer, but it was during a deployment to Djibouti in 2010 that he began not just a transition from the Reserves to active duty...but to a whole new field.
"The medical field was my avenue to go from the Reserves to active duty, and audiology offered me the chance to take the prerequisite courses while I was deployed. I took eight classes that one summer in Djibouti, applied to every school that I could, and got accepted," Thomas recalled, adding he maintained Reserve service while balancing a full-time class schedule.
Navy Environmental Preventative Medicine Unit 6, Thomas' command, has significant operational presence in the Oceana area. But it was force of will, he said, that got him to the FSM.
"I had to piggyback myself to missions that were coming out here. I'd done my research and seen the FSM had, at one time, taken U.S. dollars to start a newborn hearing screening program for audiology, so that was the foot in the door when we had a couple of projects in Chuuk," Thomas explained. "Two months later, I was in Yap with an entomologist. While he did his work, I did audiology and reviewed their programs. Since then, there's certain funding that comes up for public health works, and myself and a couple of other team members are the caretakers for that. We go to different states in Micronesia and determine what their needs are, and I'm also doing audiology, so I'm dual-hatted in that sense - working as a provider but also as an advance planner for public health works there."
While medical professionals in the FSM can perform hearing screenings, Thomas explained that in the event of failing the screenings, solutions local to the FSM are nonexistent.
"There is no audiologist in the FSM, period...if the kids don't pass, they don't have the capabilities to do a follow-up diagnostic test to determine if there's any damage, or determine the extent. It's nice to come in and reassure parents that the kids are fine medically, or if there's permanent hearing loss, educate them on what next steps to take. It helps to educate the teachers as well - students who may have not appeared to be paying attention actually can't hear," Thomas said. "My first day in Chuuk, I saw 40 people, and averaged 35 per day while I was there. Now I'll average 12-20 people, and the last time I was in Pohnpei, I saw six a day, cases that were earmarked for me to see - cases with failed hearing screenings or speech difficulty."
In addition to the lack of a resident expert, Thomas identified two environmental factors for hearing loss in the FSM.
"I see a lot of the hearing loss is due to ear infections. Kids in general are susceptible to ear infections, but when you add in a warm tropical climate and, in Chuuk especially, the kids are always in the water - it's a picnic for bacteria. Some treatment, if it's done, it's not followed through, or they just don't stay out of the water. So you see what could be a temporary hearing loss develop into permanent hearing loss, and unfortunately I've seen that happen a number of times here."
Thomas noted that while children can usually be treated, the sands of time are to blame for adult hearing loss.
"The kids I have seen here, I can get them to pass the hearing screening, but a lot of the adults have permanent hearing loss through age. They're not exposed to a lot of the loud noises we have in the U.S., so that's typically not an issue we see here. The ear infections that lead to permanent hearing loss are definitely prevalent here."
Audiology is far from the only specialty Pacific Partnership brings to the FSM and to all the sites, and for Thomas, it brings incredible reward.
"A big thing for Pacific Partnership is the specialties they don't have and can't sustain. It has a long-lasting impact. I was a surface warfare officer for 14 years, and none of those deployments were as enjoyable as this one - you didn't have the feel of the impact on the local population. You don't have the feeling of 'I'm affecting lives on a local basis.' I became an audiologist in 2015, and I have been begging, kicking and screaming to go on Pacific Partnership ever since. I finally got on this one, and I've already thrown my hat in to go on next year's as well."
For new visitors to the FSM, Thomas advised that Yap is far from representative of the FSM as a whole.
"See every island you can. They're all different, and they all have their own features. Yap has great diving, Chuuk has different diving, and Pohnpei has waterfalls that I've never seen before. They're all friendly, but they've got their own unique vibe," he said.
Pacific Partnership, now in its 13th iteration, is the largest annual multinational humanitarian assistance and disaster relief preparedness mission conducted in the Indo-Pacific. The mission's objective is to enhance regional coordination in areas such as medical readiness and preparedness for man-made and natural disasters.
Pacific Partnership 2018 consists of more than 800 U.S. military personnel stationed worldwide and embarked aboard Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Mercy (T-AE 19) and Military Sealift Command expeditionary fast transport ship USNS Brunswick (T-EPF 6), working side-by-side with host nation counterparts to be better prepared for potential humanitarian aid and disaster response situations.
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