May 15, 2003


 A tour in the desert

Veterinarians fill forward positions in Iraq campaign

Posted May 1, 2003

Rallying to the Army Veterinary Corps motto "conserve the fighting strength," veterinary officers in the theater of operations ("forward" areas) have helped protect the soldiers engaged in Operation Iraqi Freedom during the combat engagement phase.

Captain Kent J. Vince of the 43rd Medical Detachment said that his while his duties in support of the campaign "are not very glamorous or action packed," they're important.

"My soldiers and I are here in support of the war fighter, both human and canine," Capt. Vince said. "We ensure that the food the soldiers receive is safe so that they can fight without falter. A raging case of foodborne illness leading to blowout diarrhea could render an entire artillery battery useless, thus not able to provide the suppressive fire that the infantry soldiers fighting on the front lines need to be able to defeat the enemy.

"If you never hear a story on CNN or Fox News about a group of soldiers getting sick from Salmonella or E coli, then we veterinarians have done our job."

As officer in charge of a small team of soldiers, Capt. Vince has two 91 romeos—veterinary food inspectors, and one 91 tango—a veterinary technician. His team normally would include two additional food inspectors, but they were needed for another mission.

"I work, live, eat, sleep, and relax with these individuals on a daily basis, and I am responsible for their well-being, in addition to ensuring they accomplish their mission," he said.

All he can disclose about his location is that he is in the middle of the desert surrounded by miles and miles of sand.

So is his friend Capt. Ronald L. Burke of the 72nd Medical Detachment. Classmates at Michigan State University, they graduated in 2001 and received their commissions from the Army ROTC department there. Captain Burke elected to be assigned to a deployable unit out of Wuerzburg, Germany. The Army first assigned Captain Vince to the veterinary clinic at Fort Hood, Texas, to care for the horses of the 1st Cavalry Division, because he had served an equine ambulatory internship. Even though he was in a nondeployable unit, the Army can assign officers to deployable units in times of conflict.

"I didn't expect to be in the thick of things quite so early in my career," Capt. Vince admitted.

While stationed in Germany, Capt. Burke had an initial assignment of conducting food safety inspections at area camps to ensure that the provisions were from approved sources, and that basic sanitary and security measures were in place to prevent deliberate physical, biological, or chemical contamination.

"Now, my duties consist of more administration, as I currently serve as the executive officer for the unit," Capt. Burke said.

A typical "veterinary large" detachment comprises about 48 soldiers. The unit is broken into smaller squads or teams of four to six soldiers led by a veterinarian. Captain Burke is with the 72nd Medical Detachment, a veterinary large with a "veterinary small" underneath. A portion, or "slice element," of the 43rd Medical Detachment that included Capt. Vince fell for a time under the command of the 72nd, for operational purposes, but the slice later returned to the commander of the 43rd when the areas of operation changed.

Within his own squad, Capt. Burke has six people reporting to him—two technicians, three food inspectors, and a senior noncommissioned officer who is also a food inspector. As the commissioned officer, he also oversees the other squads indirectly.

A government and corporate rotation that Capt. Burke completed during his clinical phase at MSU and some food inspection work he did there helped prepare him for his current work, he said, as did an epidemiology course.

Like Capts. Vince and Burke, Maj. Joseph G. Williamson is an Army officer, but he is stationed on a Navy base. Major Williamson and his 12-person team are in Bahrain and Kuwait, assigned to U.S. Army Central Command. Most of them are active-duty, noncommissioned officers, but a few are commissioned officers.

The team, which is part of the ARCENT Veterinary Services, is headquartered at the Naval Support Activity in Bahrain, with one squad currently assigned to Kuwait. "Our area of operation covers the entire U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations, which encompasses more than 27 countries, the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea, and the Arabian Gulf," Maj. Williamson said.

"Our job takes us throughout the area of responsibility, where we conduct commercial sanitary audits and class 1—food/subsistence—procurement for the Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Army, and Coast Guard of the coalition forces supporting operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom."

The 46th detachment is the responsible agency for the Directory of Approved Sources. That, Maj. Williamson explained, is the list of all the facilities and food types the detachment has inspected and approved for armed forces procurement and consumption. "This is important because food provided to U.S. forces, procured locally, must meet strict regulatory guidelines. The team ensures, through its audit processes, that they provide only safe and wholesome food."

Bottled water must meet Environmental Protection Agency standards, for example, and all food must meet applicable standards in the Code of Federal Regulations.

In their primary mission, they perform sanitary audits of more than a hundred commercial facilities or suppliers in 10 countries. They also inspect operational rations such as meals, ready-to-eat and food and beverages acquired from "prime vendors," which are similar to distributors.

Veterinarians from the 46th detachment do not deploy to afloat units in their area of responsibility, but provide pierside inspections of subsistence destined for the Navy fleet. To support this mission, the detachment has opened a food diagnostic laboratory in Bahrain.

Besides food inspection, the Army Veterinary Corps provides emergency and preventive veterinary care for all U.S. and coalition military working dogs and other government-owned animals in theater. Recently, CENTCOM's Southwest Asia Veterinary Services opened a state-of-the-art veterinary treatment facility in Bahrain that includes in-house diagnostics and full dental care capabilities, Maj. Williamson noted.

Another mission is providing public health expertise for commanders and deployed forces. These activities include supporting a leishmaniasis survey, monitoring for tickborne diseases in working dogs and dependent pets, conducting rabies and bite report surveys, and investigating foodborne outbreaks.

Capts. Burke and Vince have not had military working dogs in their geographic areas of responsibility and miss the clinical medicine. In mid-April, as troops began transitioning from combatants to peacemakers, the two veterinarians said they would welcome the chance to do humanitarian work and clinical medicine in theater.

"I am hoping as the hostilities begin to finish, we will take on more medical duties," Capt. Vince said. "Humanitarian veterinary medicine is something that I would like to do if the opportunity arises here. It would be great to help the people of Iraq by providing for their animals."

Throughout the countryside, he has seen sheep, goats, and camels. "I am amazed these animals can survive in this harsh environment with so little to eat," he said. "Unfortunately, we haven't had an opportunity to treat any of these or other animals."

Captain Burke's squad is the only one within his unit that is fully capable of providing veterinary care for animals because it is equipped for anesthesia and surgery. Their animal health care mission will depend on how many military working dogs come into the area and whether his unit assumes a humanitarian mission. "We aren't treating civilian pets, as we currently do not have a humanitarian mission. That may, and probably will, change after the fighting has subsided."

The 46th detachment has already been supporting the humanitarian mission in Iraq by inspecting "humanitarian daily rations," Maj. Williamson said. These are the meals provided to civilians in postcombat areas.

The possibility of encountering combat or incoming missiles exists, even though the veterinary units themselves are not deployed for combat missions. Therefore, they must follow base-operations guidelines for carrying weapons and chemical protective gear, and for responding to missile and rocket alerts.

Major Williamson said, "All of my soldiers have been trained on how to wear, store, and use chemical and biological protective equipment, and are qualified on their weapons."

Captain Vince said the most blood he plans to see from himself or any of his soldiers resulted from the wisdom teeth he had pulled while in theater. Still, he said, there is no doubt they are in a war zone. "We have had numerous SCUD alarms that cause everyone's heart rate to rise as we race for the bunker scrambling to put on our protective gear, waiting and hoping for the all-clear signal."

The environment also poses a formidable challenge. Temperatures were moderate until April, Capt. Vince noted. Then one day, his thermometer climbed to 116.4 F. "Now that is hot, especially when you add the fact that we wear a helmet and a Kevlar vest on top of our regular uniform. And I hear the summer high is expected to exceed 130."

Then there is the sand. "Even if the winds aren't bad—and they can get to 35 knots—the sand hangs in the air and coats everything, including the lungs, as a few soldiers are developing a wicked cough," Capt. Burke said.

The workday is long; Capt. Burke's, for example, goes from 5:30 am to 9:30 pm.

But by far, Capt. Vince said, the most difficult thing about this deployment for him is being separated from his fiancee, Katrin.

Technology enables the troops to enjoy some creature comforts, to balance out the tough times. "Today I'm sitting in a nice air-conditioned tent," Capt. Vince said. "I am able to eat three hot meals a day, eat ice cream, take a shower, connect to the Internet, call home once in a while, watch movies, and even catch a little Fox News each day.

"When you compare how we are living now to those soldiers who have fought before us, this isn't all that bad."

At his camp, Captain Burke relaxes in the "morale, welfare, and recreation" tent, where the TV is turned to the news 24/7.

The two friends anticipate their deployments may last six months to a year. When Capt. Burke returns home, he will savor a swim in a lake, shade, "real food," and a date. "There are a lot of things I plan on doing again when I return to the real world."

His most uplifting moments have come in the form of messages from friends, recreational distractions, and responses from other MSU alumni to a picture in the veterinary college's "Inside CVM" newsletter. It shows ardent Spartan fans Burke and Vince, together in the desert, displaying a makeshift Spartan banner during the "March madness" basketball season.

Captain Vince most awaits his reunion with Katrin, and his family and friends. "I'm looking forward to doing the routine things in life, like eating a pizza and drinking a beer, attending a college sporting event, playing tennis, going for a bike ride, sleeping in my king-size bed, and playing with my dog. The only time I want to be walking in sand in the future is if there is an ocean within a few feet or on the golf course.

"Knowing how good we have it back home helps to keep our intensity high in this fight for freedom for the people of Iraq and for keeping America safe from weapons of mass destruction."