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Vietnam’s “blue beret” medical soldiers fulfil mission despite COVID-19

“The moment Flight C17 landed at Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi after flying from Juba, the capital of South Sudan, touched me the most. The joy of returning to the Fatherland and my family after nearly 18 months away overwhelmed my comrades and I.”

So said Major Cao Thuy Dung, Chief Nurse at the Level-2 Field Hospital No 2, after returning to Vietnam on April 24 together with other hospital staff.

After taking on a UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan in November 2019, the Level-2 Field Hospital No 2 had to extend its stay, scheduled for one year, to nearly 18 months due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the difficulties that came with it.

However, with great will and determination, the “blue beret” medical soldiers overcame the difficulties and completed their mission.

“When we heard that the hospital and its staff would be staying longer in the area, many of us felt depressed,” Captain and Dr Nguyen Viet Phuong, Head of the Internal Medicine and Infectious Diseases Department and Head of the Level-2 Field Hospital No 2’s COVID-19 Treatment Team, told the Vietnam News Agency. “I didn’t know when I would return to my family and the motherland. But, as soldiers, we pulled ourselves together and clearly defined our new mission. We understood that it is common for UN peacekeeping mission to extend their tours in normal conditions, so doing so during a pandemic was nothing out of the ordinary.”

Overcoming the difficulties from COVID-19

COVID-19 first hit South Sudan in April 2020 and the Level-2 Field Hospital No 2 faced a shortage of medical equipment and supplies from the outset.
Cargo from Vietnam began to dry up, while local resupply was not possible because of South Sudan’s border closures and the suspension of international and domestic flights.

South Sudan had been heavily damaged by a decade of conflict, with people facing difficult lives and poor health conditions. The country was already quite fragile before the COVID-19 “tsunami” struck.

“We had to save every single mask and piece of medicine to ensure pandemic prevention and patient treatment, and we knew that patient numbers would increase sharply as the pandemic spread,” said Lieutenant Colonel and Dr Vo Van Hien, Director of the Level-2 Field Hospital No. 2.

Vietnam’s second Level-2 Field Hospital is located at Bentiu, a site that protects civilians and is known for its difficulties. Here, UN officers are constantly rotated between units, so could potentially carry disease and infect others. Insufficient facilities and medical equipment to screen for disease made the situation even worse, not to mention that environmental hygiene was generally poor.

Given these hardships, the Level-2 Field Hospital No 2 established a quarantine camp with the necessary medical equipment, which stood ready to perform emergency medical procedures and receive and treat COVID-19 patients.

“Despite the insufficiencies and hardships, the hospital’s hotline remained open 24/7, so that all cases could be reported,” said Dr Hien.

The hospital frequently organised training sessions and drills for emergency situations, created a safety protocol for all staff and officers at the hospital, and drafted combat readiness plans to save the unit as well as its officers and staff in case danger presented itself.

Recalling one unforgettable memory from his 18 months at Bentiu, when a Mongolian officer was diagnosed with pleural tuberculosis, Dr Nguyen Viet Phuong said that according to UN protocols, the officer should have been transferred to a higher level hospital or even sent home. But given the circumstances, he had to remain in the country and was treated at the hospital. His condition improved significantly with the necessary treatment.

That delighted not only the patient but also the entire Mongolian battalion, who all expressed their appreciation towards the Vietnamese doctors.
“He was the longest-staying patient in the department,” said Dr Phuong. “Given the lack of equipment, we all worked together to provide him with the best treatment we could.”

According to Dr Hien, the Level-2 Field Hospital No 2 received a lot of compliments from the UN Mission’s management units in Juba and Bentiu for the medical services it provided.

Determined to fulfil the assigned mission

Now safely back in Vietnam, hospital staff will never forget their days in such harsh working conditions.

The emergence of the global pandemic quickly become the greatest challenge for all UN peacekeeping operations around the world and especially in South Sudan.

There were times the hospital’s staff felt confused and concerned as the political and security situation in the local area became tense and the pandemic more complex, or when members of the hospital or relatives back home became sick. All had a significant influence on the mental well-being of staff.
Amid the hardships and challenges, however, the “blue beret” medical soldiers united to overcome the circumstances and fulfil the noble international mission of preserving peace - a new but lofty mission for the Vietnam People’s Army.

“At Bentiu, despite the many difficulties we faced, such as the pandemic, being away from home in a harsh environment for a long period of time, and facing shortages of materials, we always bore in mind the traditions of the Vietnam People’s Army over the past 76 years, with the motto ‘Every mission will be completed, all difficulties can be overcome’,” said Senior Lieutenant and Dr Tu Quang, Head of the Level-2 Field Hospital No. 2’s Air Rescue Team.

Wrapping up 18 months of being away from family and home, Uncle Ho’s peacetime soldiers are extremely proud to have been part of the noble mission of the Army and of Vietnam. In particular, contributing to the multilateral international mission represented sacrifice and dedication on the part of Vietnam’s female soldiers.

“It is a great honour for me to be a soldier of the Vietnam People’s Army during peacetime, taking part in international duties and contributing to protecting the Fatherland from afar,” said Chief Nurse Major Dung. “This gave me a chance to contribute to boosting the prestige and position of the country as well as the image of Vietnamese women in the eyes of international friends.”/.