Military veterinarians engaged in Operation Iraqi Freedom

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They care for the working dogs that heighten security for U.S. soldiers in Iraq. They monitor the safety of the food and drink that nourish the troops. Veterinarians serving with the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps are performing missions fundamental to Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Likewise, the public health officers in the U.S. Air Force, about two-thirds of them veterinarians, oversee the population health and environment of the troops to keep them as fit and injury-free as possible.

Multiple units of Army veterinarians are stationed in the theater of operations for U.S. Central Command, which encompasses the central Asian states—including Iraq and Afghanistan—and the Horn of Africa, according to Col. M. Scott Cornwell, CENTCOM staff veterinarian.

"It's been a rapid buildup over the past six months. There's been a phenomenal, exponential increase in the number of veterinary personnel in the CENTCOM theater," Col. Cornwell said.

United States Central Command is headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla. Colonel Cornwell is based at Tampa, but he and other medical officers rotate in and out of CENTCOM forward (theater of operations) headquarters in Qatar, where Gen. Tommy R. Franks is in command of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The colonel estimates that as of early April, over 150 military veterinary personnel, about 30 of them veterinarians, are in the CENTCOM theater. The rest consist of food warrant officers and veterinary technicians. The warrant officers are food safety experts who often have a master's degree and report to veterinary officers. There are two types of veterinary technicians. The 91Ts, or 91 tangos, as they are known, are animal technicians, and the 91Rs, or 91 romeos, are food inspectors.

"Food safety is a very important issue for the troops in our theater of operations, and veterinarians are the lead on that," Col. Cornwell noted.

With large quantities of food flowing in for the troops, the food safety concerns encompass naturally occurring threats, such as heat stress, as well as intentional alteration or adulteration. Even the "meals, ready-to-eat" need some monitoring because of the extreme environment, elapsing of time, and tampering concerns.

The Army is the Department of Defense's executive agent for veterinary services. Because of this, the Army has sole responsibility for providing medical care for military working dogs. Some dogs are trained in security, some hunt for mines, and the "bomb sniffers" are capable of detecting other explosives.

Humanitarian operations will also involve "quite a number" of civil affairs veterinarians, Col. Cornwell added. They will do in Iraq what they are already doing in Afghanistan—help people get on their feet, and work directly with the government to develop and improve animal health and food safety infrastructures. They also serve as coordinators and facilitators for nongovernmental and private volunteer organizations. Civil affairs veterinarians are on location in the Middle East, he said, awaiting orders to head into Iraq.

Some veterinarians are assigned to Army Special Forces, a highly trained branch specializing in unconventional warfare. "They travel with the Special Forces troops, who are heavily involved in the conflict right now. Along with their regular training, they have Special Forces training," Col. Cornwell said.

Special Forces veterinarians perform the same work as the other Army veterinarians, attending to the dogs, food supply, and occasionally, humanitarian needs.

Even the other Army veterinarians receive some combat training because they often work in hostile-fire areas. Col. Cornwell said, "You will probably find very few veterinarians, at least in the forward areas, who don't carry a weapon. They are trained to use the weapon and in other personal protection techniques."

Military veterinarians' work also has a public health and preventive medicine component. Col. Cornwell's responsibilities in force health protection at CENTCOM in Tampa, for example, include tracking the vaccination of troops for anthrax and smallpox, and involvement in prominent issues such as biological and chemical weapon countermeasures.

Air Force
"Public health officers are very, very actively involved in the CENTCOM theater of operations with keeping people at the forward bases as healthy as possible," said Lt. Col. William Courtney, Langley Air Force Base, Virginia Beach, Va.

Lt. Col. Courtney, the command public health officer for the 16 air combat command bases worldwide, said that U.S. air bases are scattered throughout the Middle East. Many are temporary but some are permanent, such as Incirlik, just inside the Turkish border.

"Everyplace there's an Air Force base, either for Operation Iraqi Freedom or for Operation Enduring Freedom—because we're still fighting the war on terrorism—there are an Air Force public health officer and technician," Lt. Col. Courtney, a veterinarian, added.

Around a hundred veterinarians serve at air bases worldwide, representing two-thirds of the public health officers in the Biomedical Science Corps. They are usually assigned to the base medical facility and work for the medical group commander. A cadre of highly trained enlisted personnel known as public health technicians report to the public health officers.

On each base, they serve as a public health department for an average 5,000 active-duty members, their families, and others. Bases in major metropolitan areas take a team approach with the local public health department, as also occurs when there is a communicable disease or a threat such as smallpox in a locale.

Public health personnel in Incirlik and the theater of operations do the same work as their counterparts stateside and on fixed bases in Europe—protect health, monitor disease incidence, and prepare troops for deployment. Lt. Col. Courtney said it's just "kicked up a notch." In the States they do this as well to control the risks to the base population under the Homeland Security umbrella.

In their advisory role, public health officers conduct medical intelligence. They research a region's endemic medical problems and disease vectors before troops are deployed there. They also assess health issues associated with occupational problems. Then, they make recommendations to commanders for protecting the personnel.

"We're generally among the first Air Force people on the ground in a deployed location, because we're trying to make sure the place is as safe as it can be before we bring people in," Col. Deneice Van Hook said.

Colonel Van Hook is the chief veterinarian in the Air Force and is the director of Operational Support for the Air Force Medical Operations Agency. The agency, located at Bolling Air Force Base, Washington, D.C., coordinates policy and ensures that the clinical practices on bases are following guidelines. The agency is a division of the Air Force Surgeon General's Office.

The public health officers are consultants in deployment site selection and field sanitation decisions. While in theater, they monitor not only food safety but also food security. Col. Van Hook noted, "We're expanding our capability into looking for intentional contamination of food and how we control that and decrease the risk."

They monitor vectors, diseases, and nonbattle injuries to identify what is preventable and to detect problems early so countermeasures can be taken swiftly. Occupational health exposure is another surveillance area. With jets taking off continually, is the troops' hearing protected? Are they breathing in fumes?

"Where we interact with the Army the most on deployed locations is the Army is the executive agent or the belly button for approval of food sources—where the food is manufactured and processed," Lt. Col. Courtney noted.

In a deployed location, military personnel work in a joint environment. For Operation Iraqi Freedom, they all become CENTCOM personnel, regardless of what uniform they wear.