By Lea Johnson
21st Space Wing Public Affairs staff writer
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — A Team Pete civilian has a new title to add to his signature block: Knight.
On March 23, in Quito, Ecuador, the Ecuadorian Ministry of Defense awarded Mark Backlin, 4th Manpower Requirements Squadron manpower engineer, the “Atahualpa Merit” decoration in the category of Knight for his humanitarian work with the Judith Lombeida Medical Foundation.
Backlin formed the foundation while trying to make sense of the chaos that surrounded his wife’s death in 2006. “A lot of this work started because of energy I wanted to channel. I can’t think of a better way to remember somebody than doing something like this,” Backlin said.
This summer the foundation marks a big milestone; the foundation he formed in Lombeida’s memory will have treated 10,000 patients since its first medical mission to Ecuador in August 2007.
Lombeida, a native of Ecuador, came to the United States at age 18 to study medicine. “She got here, and she failed her first semester because she just didn’t know the language,” Backlin said. But Lombeida, who was focused and determined, went on to achieve the rank of colonel and was the neurology chief at the U.S. Air Force Academy from 2003 until her tragic death.
Backlin, a government civilian, used his leave to make one or two medical trips a year to Ecuador since 2007. “It helps so many who have nothing,” he said.
All of the generals from the Ecuadorian air force were in attendance, Backlin said. The medal was presented by Ecuadorian Gen. Alonso Espinosa, vice chief of staff.
“The words of General Espinosa were really kind,” he said.
Espinosa said that the JLMF was special to him because he is from Guaranda, the same region Lombeida was from. Espinosa also stated Backlin doesn’t do this for money; he does it because he cares about people in another country.
The foundation raises about $25,000 and provides more than $200,000 of free care a year. Fundraising is done through private donations, donations through the Combined Federal Campaign, and an annual golf tournament at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
“I have no employees, so I don’t have to pay anybody. I don’t pay me, I just do it. It’s a relatively cheap foundation. I’ve always kept it small on purpose,” he said.
From the beginning, the Ecuadorian air force has been more than happy to help Backlin with his missions. They’ve provided security, transportation and manpower, he said.
“It’s humbling; it’s also very heartwarming to think that they will recognize someone from the United States who’s not part of their country and place an importance on what we’re trying to do to help the people (in Ecuador). That’s pretty special,” Backlin said.
Backlin’s next mission to Ecuador will be a clinical trip in August. “I will continue doing this as long as I can,” he said. “If you believe in something strong enough, it’s like a magnetic force. Things pull in your direction because you believe so strongly in what you do, but only if you believe in it 110 percent, and you don’t take no for an answer.”