It takes Lt. Col. Don L. Couch and the Army's 321st Civil Affairs Brigade two days to travel just 300 miles through the countryside of Afghanistan; it will likely take years for the veterinarian and his colleagues to complete their mission to help rebuild the country's veterinary infrastructure.
It's a daunting task in the complex cultural, political, and geographic terrain of Afghanistan, but it's rewarding for the veterinarians stationed there with the San Antonio-based 321st and the Minnesota-based 407th Civil Affairs Brigade.
"We feel good about what we're doing," said Lt. Col. Couch, a reservist in the San Antonio-based 321st who works for the Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in his civilian life. "We think we're making a difference and we're excited about it."
While other military veterinarians protect the soldiers' food supply and treat military animals, Army Civil Affairs veterinarians and other civil affairs personnel—physicians, law enforcement specialists, political experts—work with civilians to rebuild. Most civil affairs personnel are reservists. In addition to doing veterinary work, they also help with public health efforts.
"Army Civil Affairs personnel function as a bridge between the U.S. military and local civilians," according to Col. Mark E. Gants, a Combined Joint Task Force Seven Army veterinarian providing support for the 30th Medical Brigade in Baghdad. Col. Gants also is involved with food inspection and military dog veterinary care.
The civil affairs veterinarians stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan are currently working on similar tasks—rebuilding and supplying the countries' veterinary schools, restarting national animal vaccination programs, and reconnecting local veterinarians with the international veterinary community.
Lieutenant Col. Couch is one of three Army Civil Affairs veterinarians stationed in Afghanistan; Col. Lyle Jackson and Major Guy Hohenhaus also are working there. Two other veterinarians, Major Ted Hankes and Capt. Theresa Brinn, are in Afghanistan taking care of military dogs.
There also are several civil affairs veterinarians working in Iraq; they are Col. John Huntley, Col. Mohammed Ibraheim, Lt. Col. Jose Lozada, and Lt. Col. Ami Sawtelle. Civil Affairs veterinarians Col. Irving McConnell, and Lt. James Fikes, recently ended their tours in Iraq. Major Christopher Lanier, Capt. Michael Tygart and Capt. Kelly Brooks also are stationed in Iraq, though they are focusing on food safety and military animal care.
Starting from scratch
Looters stripped Iraq's veterinary facilities.
"The veterinary colleges, veterinary diagnostic laboratories, teaching hospitals, government satellite clinics, et cetera, were all ransacked," said Col. Gants, a small animal practitioner in his civilian life. Now, Army veterinarians are working to rebuild. The Army has provided funding for new equipment for the clinic at the Baghdad Zoo and are building the country's first animal welfare center at the zoo.
Colonel Mohammed S. Ibraheim, a civil affairs veterinarian and public health coordinator for the Humanitar-ian Assistance Coordination Center in Baghdad, is helping to restart Iraq's food safety and inspection services.
Civil affairs veterinarians in Afghanistan are working with international aid organizations and the veterinary colleges at Kansas State University, the University of California-Davis, and Texas A&M University to collect donated supplies for the country's two veterinary schools, which have been devastated by years of war. Colonel William Brown, the chief of the Veterinary Corps Reserve; Lt. Col. Craig Carter; Lt. Col. Erica Eggers-Carroll; and retired Col. Vern Otte, the former chief of the Reserve,have been instrumental in these efforts.
"(At Kabul University) they have desks and a blackboard, and that's it," Lt. Col. Couch said. "All their laboratory facilities are in disrepair. Anything that's donated is greatly appreciated."
Lieutenant Col. Couch explained that, because the schools do not have reliable access to electricity, they most need books, rudimentary equipment, teaching aids, and microscopes that require little electricity.
In both countries, few animals are kept as pets, so the need for small animal care is centered on controlling strays and vaccinating herding dogs and guard dogs. The bulk of the civil affairs veterinarians' time is directed at food animals and working horses, mules, and camels, which play a crucial role in both countries' economies.
Colonel Gants said that vaccinating animals for economically important diseases is the top priority for veterinarians in Iraq. These diseases include: enterotoxemias, sheep pox, hemorrhagic septicemia, Newcastle disease variants, Gumboro disease, hydropericardium-hepatitis syndrome, anthrax, and rabies.
Vaccinations also are the focus of veterinarians in Afghanistan. Since the civil war began in the late 1980s, there has been a severe shortage of veterinarians in the country. Prior to the civil war, most of the country's veterinarians worked for the Russian government, and when the Russians left they were forced to flee or hide, Lt. Col. Couch said. For several years during the civil war, no new veterinarians were trained. This void has allowed nearly every disease on the Office International des Epizooties list of class A diseases to take hold there, according to Lt. Col. Couch.
"Afghanistan has been at war for 25 years, so you have a whole population of animals that are basically unvaccinated," Lt. Col. Couch said.
Complex and dangerous missions
Security threats and a lack of functioning infrastructure complicate the missions of the Army veterinarians.
"Visiting (veterinary facilities) requires a multivehicle convoy with a prescribed number of personnel and specified weapon types on board," Col. Gants said. "We need to be situationally aware at all times—the threat of roadside ambushes or explosive devices is very real. There have been a few instances where these convoys have come under small arms fire or narrowly missed being hit by a roadside explosive. Fortunately, no one has been injured."
Lieutenant Col. Couch said security also is foremost for the veterinarians working in Afghanistan, though the degree of threat varies widely among different parts of the country.
For Lt. Col. Couch and his team, a lack of functioning infrastructure has proved to be the biggest obstacle to their work.
"The biggest challenge is communication," he said, "even though we have pretty robust communications in the Army. You cannot call from city to city in Afghanistan; there is no commercial phone service."
Despite the challenges, the veterinarians say they are making progress.
"The most rewarding aspect is working with our Iraqi colleagues," said Col. Gants. "They have been living in professional isolation for a number of years due to the sanctions, with no access to journals, periodicals, Internet, et cetera. They have been most appreciative of our efforts, but like everyone else, they wish things would move faster."
He credited his Iraqi interpreter, Dr. Bilal A. Abdul Jabbar, who is also a veterinarian, with helping him to connect with the Iraqi veterinary community. His unit has secured funding for four Iraqi veterinarians to attend the North American Veterinary Conference in January 2004 and hopes to secure funding for Iraqi veterinarians to attend the AVMA Annual Convention in July 2004. Before he leaves, Col. Gants said he hopes to be able to fund an Iraqi veterinary conference, with speakers from Iraq and the United States.
Rebuilding in Afghanistan has been a multinational effort, according to Lt. Col. Couch. Military forces from the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Germany, Australia, Romania, Egypt, Poland, the Slovakian countries, Lithuania, and the United Arab Emirates are participating in security efforts there.
"We lead a big coalition of forces," Lt. Col. Couch said. "The world recognizes the need to help these poor people and they are demonstrating it with their military forces, with logistics, and by bringing (resources) in."
Nongovernmental organizations are also playing an important role. The Dutch Committee for Afghanistan has been working to train veterinarians in Afghanistan for many years. The committee recently held a two-day symposium for veterinarians in Kabul. Dr. David Sherman, the state veterinarian in Massachusetts, chaired the symposium and has contributed his expertise on international veterinary care to rebuilding efforts there, according to Lt. Col. Couch.
"We work with (nongovernmental organizations) on a daily basis," Lt. Col. Couch said. "We work with the International Committee for the Red Cross, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Agency, the Dutch Committee for Afghanistan, Christian Veterinary Mission, and Madera, a French aid organization."
As the country becomes more secure, veterinarians who had fled or been in hiding are returning, Lt. Col. Couch said. The veterinary schools are also working to train new veterinarians. At one of the universities, more than 250 students are enrolled across five classes, and there are several women in the first-year class. He said the school hopes to recruit more women to the profession.
Lt. Col. Couch said the rebuilding efforts are also helping to raise the status of women and girls in the country.
"It's very tough. The females in the society get the last (of everything)," he said. "That's a cultural thing and an education thing. (The girls) are just beat about the head and shoulders that (they) are inferior; then they see our females carrying weapons and driving trucks, and holding positions of authority. So that's just one little thing we can do to bring them up to the rest of the world's standards."
Both Col. Gants and Lt. Col. Couch are optimistic about the future in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"I realize that most of the news paints a fairly bleak picture of events here, but there are positive things happening here, also," Col Gants said. "I've found the Iraqis to be friendly, hospitable people who are well-educated and industrious."
"We'll be (in Afghanistan) for many, many years, but we feel good about what we are doing, and the Afghan people respect what we're doing," Lt. Col. Couch said. "I had an interpreter tell me this is the happiest, most productive time he's ever seen in Afghanistan in his 32 years. Even as miserable as it might be to us Westerners, it's the best time he's seen."