EGLIN AFB — An influx of airmen from Hurricane Michael-ravaged Tyndall Air Force Base in nearby Panama City has created difficulties for military personnel already stationed in the area to get medical care, according to leaders of the Army's 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne).
As just one example, it now can take as long as six to eight weeks for a 7th Group soldier to be scheduled for an MRI, a medical imaging scan, at a local medical office, according to Maj. Christopher Brooks, the 7th Group's surgeon.
"It's very important that we have a robust medical structure," Brooks told a group of congressional staff members who visited the 7th Group's compound Friday. The group also toured the Army's Fort Benning and Fort Stewart in Georgia, and spent Friday afternoon with the Army's 6th Ranger Training Battalion.
During a morning briefing on the organization and missions of the 7th Group, the group's leadership also pushed for funding for an on-base child-care center. Leaders told the congressional staff members that troops with families that need child care may have to take their children as far as Eglin Air Force Base and then return to the compound near Crestview to report for work.
"The logistics, they get pretty challenging," said Maj. Blake Anderson, the 7th Group's executive officer.
Staff members from the offices of Rep. Matt Gaetz, the Republican congressman representing this area, and of Reps. Neal Dunn, R-Fla., Ted Yoho, R-Fla., Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., Greg Steube, R-Fla., Donna Shalala, D-Fla., Mark Meadows, R-N.C., Doug Collins, R-Ga. and Rick Allen, R-Ga., attended the briefing. They also met with 7th Group troops to learn about their lives and work. They saw and learned about weapons and other gear, and some even tried their hand at firing an M4 carbine rifle and rappelling from atop a training tower.
But before all of that, they heard from Lt. Col. Aaron Bush, commander of the 7th Group's 1st Battalion, about how group Green Berets and soldiers approach their unique set of responsibilities, which include working with partner forces from various nations.
"Our culture ... is deeply seated inside our DNA," Bush told the delegation. Each morning as they stand in front of their mirrors shaving or brushing their teeth, Bush said, 7th Group troops get a chance to reflect that they "get to be a part of something bigger than yourself for another day."
"It's impressive," Bilirakis staffer Nathan Stamps said as he talked with a 7th Group soldier about the training of military working dogs. Stamps has attended similar briefings with other military units, and was surprised at the access provided by the 7th Group. Stamps said he appreciated "the opportunity to speak with them in a more informal way."
Stamps said one of the messages he'll take back to Bilirakis, Stamps is the need to ensure quality-of-life issues are addressed with "a more holistic kind of care" for soldiers like the 7th Group troops.
Mallory Rascher, who serves on Meadows' staff, was one of a handful of staffers to try rappelling.
"I like trying anything that gives you adrenaline," Rascher said after safely reaching the ground.
Rascher comes from a military family whose members have served in Special Forces, and said it was important for her to gain an understanding of the real needs of today's Special Forces and of the fiscal resources required to support them.
"It's easy to sit behind a desk and say 'Well, a billion dollars is a lot of money' " without really understanding the need for that kind of expenditure, Rascher said.
"It's important to see that they (Special Forces soldiers) don't get forgotten, because a lot of people don't get to see and hear about what they're doing," she added.
The congressional staff members had wide-ranging discussions with 7th Group soldiers, talking with them about things such as the ammunition and communications equipment they use in the field and the role of drones.
Christofer Horta, who works for a Shalala, said Friday's visit was helpful. "Seeing it firsthand gives us a better understanding of what more the military needs," he said.
Maj. Kimbia Rey, the 7th Group's public affairs officer, said the group hosts at least a couple of congressional staff visits each year. According to Rey, the visits are an opportunity for staffers "to see what it (serving in Special Forces) really is and to understand it." For instance, Rey said it's important to understand that Special Forces troops are "personnel with a different mindset."
"It's the tip of the spear," Rey said.