From providing working dogs with veterinary care to acting as a small public health department, numerous veterinarians with the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force continue to perform crucial duties in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Army Veterinary Corps remains supportive of the Global War on Terrorism through Operation Enduring Freedom in several regions and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
At any given time, just fewer than 10 percent of active duty Veterinary Corps officers are deployed in support of OEF and OIF, according to Maj. Kimberly T. Lawler, assistant to the chief, U.S. Army Veterinary Corps, who is stationed in Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
The Veterinary Corps comprises all the officers who are in the U.S. Army Veterinary Service. Currently, 671 veterinarians are commissioned officers in the Corps—429 active duty veterinarians and 242 in the Reserve. The 242 veterinarians in the Reserve consist of 161 Army reserves, 69 individual ready reserves, and 12 National Guardsmen. Besides the veterinarians, 84 warrant officers are in the Corps.
Deployed Army veterinarians in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, and locations in Southwest Asia and Africa provide world-class veterinary medical and food inspection support to U.S. and Coalition Forces, said Maj. Lawler, who earned her DVM degree from the University of Tennessee in 1998.
Supplying veterinary medical care to the hundreds of working dogs supporting operations is a major function of the Army Veterinary Service. The Veterinary Service encompasses not only the active duty and Reserve veterinarians and the warrant officers in the Veterinary Corps but also 2,100 enlisted soldiers and 645 civilians—some of whom are veterinarians.
One example of the benefit of food inspection support, Maj. Lawler said, resulted from Veterinary Service's help in acquiring and approving locally owned bottled water plants in Afghanistan. This provided a savings of more than $38 million per year and eliminated 4,320 water-hauling truck trips from supply routes, which decreased driver exposure to improvised explosive devices. Major Lawler said these water plants are now part of the approved source audit program that is linked with other government food safety agencies to share information that protects service members and contributes to the nation's food safety.
In addition to veterinary medical and food inspection support, Veterinary Service personnel play a key role in civil affairs operations.
"Both in Iraq and Afghanistan, Army veterinarians are working directly with the government to develop and improve animal health and food safety infrastructures," Maj. Lawler said. "They also serve as coordinators and facilitators for nongovernmental and private volunteer organizations."
Another accomplishment by the Veterinary Corps came in March 2006 when U. S. Naval Medical Research Unit No. 3 (NAMRU-3, Cairo, Egypt) deployed one of its Army veterinarians with a mobile polymerase chain reaction laboratory to Afghanistan to diagnose what proved to be highly pathogenic avian influenza, then track the outbreak and guide control measures.
Subsequently, NAMRU-3 retained the veterinarian in Afghanistan to refurbish four rooms in the Central Veterinary Diagnostic and Research Laboratory and install biosafety cabinets, permanent conventional and real-time PCR machines, and all the ancillaries to perform PCR assays to U.S. biosafety standards. During outbreaks this past spring, the laboratory functioned independently, detecting and tracking outbreaks, and now it is a permanent fixture of the Afghanistan Ministry of Agriculture.
U.S. Air Force
Approximately half of all public health officers that the U.S. Air Force deploys overseas are veterinarians. Currently, 10 officers are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Col. William G. Courtney, chief of public health for the Air Force and the military consultant for public health to the Air Force surgeon general.
In essence, the officers function as leaders of small public health departments. Their daily responsibilities, along with their highly trained enlisted partners, include disease surveillance and outbreak investigations in humans. They also perform medical entomology work, communicable disease control, and all food safety and sanitation for troops at the Air Force bases.
For routine assignments, the officers are stationed in Iraq or Afghanistan for four-month rotations. Recently, the Air Force has paired with the U.S. Army on civil affairs missions, which require a six-month stay.
There are at least 17 civil affairs missions that the officers have participated in, said Col. Courtney, who is stationed at Bolling Air Force Base, Washington, D.C.
The officers are helping to develop national food safety campaigns, national public health education plans, hazardous and medical waste disposal programs, and slaughterhouse sanitation programs. Particularly in Iraq, officers with a veterinary background are working with the locals to establish an infectious animal-disease control program. They assist the U.S Agency for International Development and the U.S. Department of Agriculture with this work.
Colonel Courtney said one of the main challenges of being an Air Force public health officer in Iraq and Afghanistan is just being in a foreign country.
"You learn public health here in the United States, but then you go someplace where it's a little bit different, (and) it's not only a challenge, but it's probably the most educational experience you can have—to actually see, smell, feel public health in some other part of the world," said Col. Courtney, who earned his DVM degree in 1980 from the University of Illinois and his master's in public health from the University of Minnesota in 1991.
"Public health is one of the first things to go when there's a war. Rebuilding that and trying to focus on what does the most good for the most people is kind of an art and a science," he continued. "The challenge is to figure out what you can do with the limited resources you have, to do the most good for the most people."
Along with dodging bombs and snipers, Col. Courtney said, trying to work with the local public health officers presents another challenge.
"It's one thing to go to a peaceful country like Thailand; it's another to go to someplace in the Middle East," he said. "The cultural differences between the United States and the Middle East are quite stark, really. Working within that environment is challenging, but rewarding."