Bremerton Corpsman Battles Malnutrition in Afghanistan

Story Number: NNS091223-11Release Date: 12/23/2009 4:13:00 PM
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By Douglas H. Stutz, Naval Hospital Bremerton Public Affairs

BREMERTON, Wash. (NNS) -- A Naval Hospital Bremerton Corpsman deployed to Afghanistan is spending the holiday season combating endemic malnutrition in local children under the age of five as part of the Strong Food Project.

Hospital Corpsman Chief Connie Smith is still planning on holiday decorations and helping with a holiday meal. She's just over 6,725 miles home away from home, with a lot of work to do in her contribution to make a positive difference.

Smith, a Kimberly, Idaho native, is currently deployed from Naval Hospital Bremerton to Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan and attached with 30th MED COM Task Force, Cooperative Medical Assistance (CMA), a combined Soldier, Sailor and Airmen joint command that focuses on health service support, force health protection planning, medical logistics, patient movement, and health care policy. Smith is in charge as operations chief/non commissioned officer in charge of the CMA and is currently working on the Strong Food Project, along with a nurse practitioner to help .

"The project basically is to help kids from 6-60 months regain a normal appetite," explained Smith. "We also have an Entomologist on board who is work on a Malaria Control project as well as an Army Veterinarian who has a couple a projects in the work such as teaching the local veterinarians basic veterinarian skills, as well as meat preservation which I am starting to help with."

According to NATO's International Security Assistance Force Afghanistan, the project began in November 2008 in the southern Afghan province of Zabul. Strong Food itself is composed of five simple ingredients which can be purchased by locals and then combined with liquid vitamins. The resulting mixture is a high-fat, sweet-tasting blend provided daily for children with severe malnutrition.

"I come to work everyday hoping to make a difference in the lives of the Afghan people," said Smith, who has served in the Navy for 21 years. "The programs we provide are helping them to self sustain themselves. All I can do is hope and pray we are making a difference."

According to the CIA World Factbook, the Infant Mortality Rate in Afghanistan is 151.95 per 1,000, behind only the West African nations of Angola and Sierra Leone.

"The Infant Mortality Rate is a very important measuring tool," stated Captain Fred Landro, Naval Hospital Bremerton Branch Clinic Director and Department Head of Occupational Medicine for the Bangor Industrial Complex, including Bangor, Keyport and Indian Island. "It really is the barometer of the level of health of the country. That Afghanistan has such a high rate indicates a need for medical assistance."

There is also a high degree of risk for major infectious diseases amongst the local population. There are food and waterborne diseases such as bacterial and protozoal diarrhea, hepatitis A, and typhoid fever. There are vector-borne diseases such as malaria, and the disease rabies is present as an animal contact disease. There is no shortage of work for Smith and her team. She is also finding her gender augments her corpsman knowledge in gaining access to Afghans in need.

Compiled figures estimate that approximately 220,000 American women have engaged in combat operations in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Concurrently, females make up over 48 percent of the population in Afghanistan. As a high ranking petty officer and female, Smith has been able to see Afghani women and children and provide medical support and health care needs that a male doctor, nurse or corpsman could not.

"Most of the people are happy to see us," noted Smith. "While doing a mission in one area, I treated a local Afghan girl who was very strong willed and determined. When I noticed that in her, I knew the mind set is out there that the women can do what needs to be done. While in another area I was the only female provider, so I was working with a local Afghan male doctor, who of course had a great deal of more medical knowledge than me, but the local women would ask to see me."

As one of the few female providers around, Smith has participated in humanitarian assistance projects, as well as women/child clinics set up for several days to treat local Afghans on an Afghan Security Force base.

"We saw almost 600 patients within a 3-day period at one of our arranged clinics," said Smith, who attests that the translators she works with are invaluable to their effort. "We have several linguists attached to our command that we could not do our job without."

Despite being away from her own kids, Smith is very active with Afghani children in her duties. "I think helping the children has been the most heart touching fact," she said. "I hope that what we are doing will make a better life for them."

Much of what Smith does as a Navy hospital corpsman is to provide basic medical assistance and health care. One such innocuous interaction immediately came to mind to Smith in her dealings with local youth amidst a background of protracted warfare. "We had a girl come in with gum all over her neck. She was wailing because she couldn't nod her head without getting the gummy residue stuck on her chest," recounted Smith. "We finally got it off by rubbing lotion on her neck and by giving a good scrub. I then handed her a piece of candy and some vitamins and off she went. She's the cutest little thing and could not have been more then 3 years old."

Smith is also engaged in creating a positive change within her command, doing her part to bring a touch of the holidays to her immediate surroundings. "We do have a Christmas tree up and the hallways are decorated," she said. "One of our interpreters will be bringing in some Afghan food dishes, which are really pretty good. I miss cooking, so thinking about not being able to cook the traditional holiday feast for my family is harder than I thought it would be."

Smith is able to communicate back home with her husband Jeffrey, also a Chief Hospital Corpsman, and their two boys, but it still is hard, especially over the holidays.

"I miss just not being there to give them hugs and kisses everyday and reading to them before bed," related Smith. "Luckily I can talk to them almost every day and hear their voices, which I am truly grateful for. I know my husband is doing a great job and making everything as normal as possible for them and for that I am also grateful. He's wonderful I couldn't ask for anything more."

"Right now we are all where we are suppose to be whether we like the situation or not," continued Smith. "We are all making a difference in this world. We are making history. It doesn't get any better than that."

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