Spc. Chris McCann
2nd BCT PAO, 10th Mtn. Div. (LI)
FORWARD OPERATING BASE YUSUFIYAH, Iraq — In the rural areas south of Baghdad, homes are often made of mud and roofed with sheet metal or mats made of beaten reeds. A cow or two and a flock of sheep in the yard complete the scene. But animals can get sick, and due to terrorism – whether sect-against-sect or against coalition forces - travel is dangerous for veterinarians too.
To begin repairing this, the Multi-National Division – Baghdad veterinarian, Lt. Col. Neil Ahle, and several Soldiers of the 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division (LI) conducted a veterinary operation in a schoolyard in Al-Taraq, Iraq on Dec. 22.
“One problem of the country at large is the infrastructure,” Ahle said, noting that while schools are opening and water treatment plants coming back on-line, medical and veterinary care in rural areas is still foundering.
“With the lack of refrigeration, vaccines go bad,” Ahle explained. “And with the violence between tribes and sects, veterinarians don’t go out. The animals have suffered, as well as the crops. Meat, milk and wool are very big business here.”
Everyone pays the price for the loss, Ahle added.
“With a lack of veterinary care, the crops go down, the death toll rises, farmers lose money. Maybe they can support their own family, but there’s no cash crop.”
So when Ahle appeared at the Al-Taraq school with his medical kits and Soldiers of Company C, 4-31 announced that free medical care would be given to animals, it wasn’t long before people arrived with livestock in tow.
With no veterinary equipment such as a chute to funnel the animals through, separating those that had been vaccinated from those who hadn’t, the Soldiers went to work with steel pickets and engineer tape to create makeshift fences to guide the animals along.
One man brought a cow, rack-thin and blind in one eye. He asked if Ahle had medication for the eye, but Ahle had to explain through an interpreter that the eye was too far gone. He gave the cow a dose of wormer and a vaccination against some of the endemic diseases in the area.
Two shepherds brought a flock of sheep and goats next – about sixty animals, from a full-curl ram to a tiny brown kid goat born only days before.
Ahle and the shepherds seemed to have a moment of consternation. How to get all of these sheep through the process and not get them mixed up? A moment later, Navy Cmdr. Mike Sanchez, a civil affairs officer with MND-B, had chalk to mark the sheep’s heads when they’d been treated, and the shepherd was holding up his first candidate for a dose of wormer, vitamins and vaccine. He gamely continued, holding up each of the sheep and then the goats.
Ahle told him he had the best-behaved animals he’d ever seen, but the next batch of sheep required the assistance of some Soldiers from Co. C to keep them out of the classrooms or holding still while receiving vaccine.
A cow was mostly healthy except for the horn that had curled around, poised to penetrate the cow’s skull. The woman said she did not know how to help the animal. With six Soldiers holding the animal against a concrete pillar, Ahle borrowed a pocketknife with a saw and cut off part of the offending horn. He explained that if uncut, the horn would first pinch the skin, then slowly penetrate the animal’s sinus cavity, causing pain and infection.
By a little after noon, Ahle and his de facto assistants had treated 95 sheep and five cattle. They had trimmed hooves and horns, wrestled goats, and been dragged through the mud.
“I think we’ve covered everything,” Ahle said. “We did the best we could with what we had. Next time we need more and better equipment, and we need to get Iraqi vets out here.”
Encouraging Iraqi veterinarians was Ahle’s main goal, he said.
“Maybe by doing this veterinary care, we’ll get a vet in the area to step up,” he said. “We put a lot of effort into many areas, but pushing the Iraqi people to step up and do it – well, this is one way to do that.”
Sgt. Joseph Strauch, a radio-telephone operator with Co. C and a native of Buffalo, N.Y., helped wrestle sheep, and said he enjoyed the chance to do something different.
“It was something new,” he said. “It’s not every day you herd sheep. It’s the most interesting thing I’ve done in Iraq.”
Staff Sgt. Frank Hutchinson, a squad leader with the company and a Tampa, Fla., native, said he’d never worked with sheep in his life.
“I just adapt very well,” Hutchinson explained. “I just showed ‘em who’s boss.”
For the next veterinary operation, Ahle especially wants a head-chute to hold cattle still.
“When you’re dealing with a twelve-hundred- or fifteen-hundred-pound cow, you’re going to go for a ride,” Ahle said. “But I think we all had a good time. I heard more laughing than complaining.”