Seabees augment medical NGO mission with “Can Do” spirit

By ENS Patrick Edwards, NMCB 11 CCAD MHL

Kwajalein Atoll, Marshall Islands — Seabees from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 11 volunteered with the medical NGO Canvasback during its two-week trip to the Marshall Islands, Sep 10 – 24.


Canvasback is a 501(c)3 medical non-profit founded in 1981 to serve remote islands in the Pacific. They have visited Ebeye Island on Kwajalein Atoll for the last 25 years. They provide dental and a variety of other medical care to Marshallese residents, who often suffer from debilitating medical conditions such as diabetes, cataracts, or tooth decay. Canvasback is composed of medically-skilled volunteers from the United States who devote two weeks of unpaid leave to participate in a cause for a greater good.

Although proficient in medicine, they have minimal experience in logistics – which is where the value of Seabees was made evident. Eight Seabees from Construction Civic Action Detail Marshall Islands (CCAD MHL) put in 82 hours of off-duty volunteer time to help augment Canvasback’s capabilities; they hauled gear on and off the ferry, carried heavy gear boxes up flights of stairs, unpacked, organized and inventoried hundreds of line items of medical equipment, and assisted with administrative tasks throughout the day. Most impressively, two Seabees, Petty Officer 3rd Class Seth Reed from Boise, Idaho, and Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Dawson, from East Liverpool, Ohio, were able to fix an articulating mechanism in a much-needed surgical chair, enabling the ophthalmology team to accomplish double their surgery capacity.

“Seabees have been such a huge help to our mission this year,” said Mrs. Jacque Spence, Co-founder and Director of Canvasback. “Because they helped so much with other tasks, our medical specialists were able focus on their work and get so many more procedures done.”

Canvasback medical staff were able to perform up to 20 procedures in a day, both with cataract surgeries and dental stabilization, often working 10 straight hours with only a few minutes for breaks. Thanks to Seabees, these highly specialized professionals were able to focus on patient care without worrying about logistics.

“Working with Canvasback has been a great opportunity for our personnel,” said Chief Petty Officer Brandon Simons, CCAD MHL Assistant Officer-In-Charge. “They’ve gotten to see how much their skill sets can be useful in other areas than just contingency construction, and how much impact it can have on the people benefiting from the humanitarian work. Not to mention the personal bonds that were formed between Seabees and Canvasback; sharing meals, snorkeling, playing volleyball together, everyone got a chance to learn a lot from each other, and it opened up their eyes to each other’s worlds.”

Seabees Aug (10)

When asked what had impacted him the most about his medical mission to the Marshall Islands, Ophthalmology doctor Justin Dalke, of Walla Walla, WA, said although the work has been fulfilling, he has come away with a huge appreciation for the military. “I honestly had no idea how much of a sacrifice you all make, especially being so far from your families for so long” he said. When a Seabee from Underwater Construction Team TWO (also deployed to Kwajalein during Exercise Valiant Shield), broke his eyeglasses, Dr. Dalke repaired them for him. The grateful diver gave him a UCT-2 coin, which Dr. Dalke now treasures and carries with him.

At the end of the two weeks, Seabees once again were indispensable, volunteering to help pack and carry equipment and luggage in order to make a very tight ferry timeline. Three members of CCAD MHL (Petty Officer 3rd Class Andrew Door, Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Dawson, and Petty Officer 2nd Class Brandon Grant) were presented with polished cowrie shells by Canvasback, which in the Marshall Islands are traditional gifts of respect and appreciation.

NMCB 11 is a Seabee battalion specializing in contingency construction, disaster response, and humanitarian assistance. The battalion’s homeport is in Gulfport, Mississippi.

The Naval Construction Force is a vital component of the U.S. Maritime Strategy. They offer deployable battalions capable of providing contingency construction, disaster preparation and recovery support, humanitarian assistance, and combat operations support.

About mbarton