Captain Ryan Miller, DVM, is a U.S. Army Reserve veterinarian currently in Afghanistan working with the Afghan people to improve agriculture and livestock practices. Miller is part of a team called CMA — Cooperative Medical Assistance. The CMA team provides training seminars at village district centers, working with non-government aid agencies, Coalition forces and U.S. military forces (agriculture development teams [ADT], Civil Affairs teams, USDA, USAID, etc.) to provide technical advice and expertise on projects throughout Afghanistan.
The CMA part of the Civil Military Operations agricultural development mission in Afghanistan is critical to the counterinsurgency. “About 85 percent of the Afghans are dependent on farming for their livelihoods,” Miller says.
Miller, from Arlington, Texas, is on his second tour of duty. His first was for 15 months in 2007–2008 in Afghanistan, during which his wife Erin, also a veterinarian, gave birth to twin boys. He is now deployed on a 6-month tour.
Also in Afghanistan at this time is Colonel Jim Floyd, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACT, a well-known bovine veterinarian and former department head from Auburn and North Carolina State Universities. In June 2010 Floyd was recruited by the Kentucky National Guard to come out of the retired reserve to serve an 11-month mission for Operation Enduring Freedom, and will return to NCSU afterward. In 2008, Floyd also spent six months as a Veterinary Corps Colonel for the Combined Joint Task Force — Horn of Africa in support of veterinary projects in four East African states
Miller’s unit works with the two veterinary colleges and several agriculture colleges located in Nangarhar and in Kabul.
“The students are very knowledgeable, but they don’t get many chances to have hands-on experiences with the animals,” he says. “We work with the Afghan students and farmers on examinations, treating animals (deworming, suturing, diagnosing diseases) and better livestock management techniques such as better forages and feeding, milk production, etc.”
As an example of the type of projects the U.S. Army is assisting with, Floyd’s Kentucky ADT team along with the Missouri ADT is setting up a sheep parasite control project in five provinces this winter to demonstrate the cost effectiveness of deworming sheep, an available technology in Afghanistan. Deworming pregnant sheep two weeks before lambing in these five provinces in Afghanistan improves the health and productivity of both the ewes and their lambs. Local impressions of parasites and deworming may have validity, but little information is documented scientifically in Afghanistan.
Floyd has experience with projects like this that can enhance livestock production in subsistence farming areas. While he was in Africa in 2008, over a two-month period the Veterinary Civic Action Project (VETCAP) he was involved with treated 23,903 cattle for internal and external parasites and sleeping sickness in 38 internally displaced persons camps, as well as thousands of other species. The mean cattle weight gain from the previous treatments was an impressive 47.9 percent. “Our hope was they would see the value in such routine procedures and continue them,” Floyd said in an NCSU CVM article.
Not only do these programs enhance livestock production, but they have an impact on human disease. In his article detailing his experience in Africa, Floyd said it was discovered that cattle can serve as a reservoir host for one of the microorganisms causing Human African trypanosomiasis, Trypanosoma bruceirhodesiense. “As an added benefit, our VETCAP in northern Uganda complemented an ongoing campaign to stop the spread of human sleeping sickness by reducing the presence of the causative microorganism in cattle. The human disease may cause as many as 100,000 human deaths annually, with symptoms mimicking AIDS.”
Livestock nutrition a problem
Afghanistan’s rugged landscape can be inhospitable to people as well as livestock. Typical Afghan farmers are trying to sustain enormous families with food grown on about a half-acre to an acre of ground, often using beasts of burden to pull wooden plows, Miller says. The majority of livestock in Afghanistan are sheep, goats, donkeys, and some cattle with an occasional camel.
“Animals here in Afghanistan are usually much thinner and overall smaller than what we see in the United States,” Miller says. Poor livestock nutrition is the number one problem in Afghan livestock production. He adds that the Afghans are very interested in artificial insemination in order to improve meat and milk production, but “they do not readily recognize that nutrition is a limiting factor.”
The amount of irrigable land is limited so animal forages compete with other crops grown for human consumption, and there are no pastures or range land to graze.
“The predominant system of irrigation is via canals into open fields — flood irrigation — which is very inefficient,” Miller says.
Unprocessed wheat straw is a big staple across the country, especially in the winter. During the summer many parts grow/feed alfalfa, Egyptian clover and some grasses near irrigation canals. For any “grazing” farmers tether the animals to a stake in the ground with about a 12-foot lead.
The basics of animal nutrition has been a big push this year for Miller’s team. “Simple, small tips can often times have a larger overall impact that some big, complicated, expensive project that the Afghans will not continue for more than a year or two.” For example, educating them on how to enrich wheat straw to provide more energy or the proper time to cut alfalfa are tools they can use that can make a difference.
“In this calorie-deficient diet where people often slowly starve in the winter, the per capita income is about $400 a year,” Miller says.
Helping veterinarians and a country
The work that the military, USDA and NGO (non-government organizations that provide aid) do has helped to strengthen the trust between Afghans and their government and our coalition forces, Miller says. “In areas of low security our work helps to break ties with insurgents and the Afghans are more willing to work with us. When we get Afghans from their own government in to work, this also helps to strengthen ties and make them less reliant on us.”
Miller works with the local veterinarians and para-veterinarians, who he says receive a good background in medicine, but they lack hands-on experience.
“Many try to get government employment for steady pay,” he says. “Once out of school they do not get many opportunities for surgery, livestock management, etc. The privatized clinics derive the majority of their income from vaccines and medicines.”
Floyd agrees and says, “Many of the Afghan veterinarians have a lot of book knowledge but little in the realm of practical experience. I’m not sure if many of them have ever done a complete necropsy and the Central Research and Diagnostic Lab in Kabul has very limited capability, i.e. no histopathology services.”
Floyd is organizing training for this winter in the four provinces where the Kentucky Agriculture Development Team will focus on practical pathology with gross pathology being the end point. Floyd is also conducting animal science university student nutrition lectures this fall and winter.
U.S. military veterinarians don’t just help farmers improve their livestock — they are also assisting the Afghan government to help its people become more self-sufficient.
“We have run agriculture seminars incorporating the local veterinarians/para-veterinarians and government DAIL (Department of Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation) representatives,” Miller says.
“Bringing them together has been somewhat of a challenge,” Miller adds. “The government in the past has paid the veterinarians and DAIL agents so they have been reluctant to go out and work with the farmers. The veterinary industry is slowly being privatized, but it is a huge economic issue for the agriculture industry. We as U.S. forces are constantly promoting the Afghan government and economic infrastructure in order to make them self sustainable and rely on each other instead of U.S. forces and funding.”
Miller says there is a major focus on education, with the ADT’s agricultural specialists training Afghan extension agents to further train Afghan farmers — “training the trainers.” Much of the development programs are designed toward efforts to “put an Afghan face” on development work, with ADT’s and Civil Affairs teams endeavoring to partner with Afghan provincial ministries, particularly the DAIL to improve agriculture practices.
Civil Affairs support the veterinary missions, says Miller, and they are the Army’s main force that works with the local nationals to build capacity using reservists from all walks of life such as lawyers, engineers, police, etc. Tactical Civil Affairs teams go out and meet with local officials, conduct assessments and determine the need for critical infrastructure projects such as roads, schools, power plants, clinics, sewer lines, etc., and check up on the status of the project after construction by a local company has begun.
“Working with the Afghan government can be a frustrating job because of all the corruption,” Miller says. “Many times inter-tribal conflicts among the Afghans themselves play out in government offices. There are officials misappropriating equipment and money, ghost employees who only show up for paydays, and officials lacking even basic organizational skills.”
And while pharmaceutical companies have provided materials/medicines over the years, Miller says the current strategy is to build the Afghan capacity and capability so they are not reliant on outside funding and supplies.
“Any projects we do with the Afghans are geared toward them being able to procure materials/parts locally and as inexpensively as possible as well as it being easy to maintain once we are gone,” he explains.
Miller notes that many pharmaceuticals and a lot of equipment are readily available. “These are basic tools and medicines produced in the surrounding countries and sometimes imported from the E.U. or U.S. The agricultural economy here cannot afford expensive equipment and procedures, but they do fairly well when they can get the basics.”
Afghan farmers and veterinarians are in many ways similar to those in the U.S. and other countries, Miller says. “They are trying to make a living and feed their families. They can be hesitant to make big changes in the way things are done, but they are always looking for better and more efficient practices.”
The best experiences Miller has had with these missions are when the crowd warms up and open discussions ensues. “This is where the exchange of ideas occurs and they learn from us and each other,” he says.
Challenging, but worth it
Serving as a military veterinarian has its personal and professional challenges. On Miller’s last deployment his wife had twin boys and he missed that first year. “The boys are almost 3½ years now and so it is a lot of work for her,” he says. She is also a full-time practicing veterinarian so she keeps really busy while I am gone.”
After Miller’s last 15-month deployment, the clinic he worked for couldn’t afford to be without a veterinarian that long so when he returned he started doing contract work with several clinics. “Finding work as a reservist can be difficult because the first thing an employer asks is ‘When will you deploy again and for how long?’ ”
Miller, a 2000 Kansas State University veterinary school graduate, says he and his wife would like to move back to Kansas and possibly run their own clinic, depending on how the economy shapes up in the near future.
Despite the challenges, Miller would recommend this experience to others. “This job requires a person to be outgoing, and having an agriculture background is a huge advantage that is really essential to understanding the areas we visit and relating to the farmers and veterinarians. Most of the villages we travel to and work in are receptive to our presence. The people are generally interested in what we have to offer, and they are also curious to talk to an American about agriculture in the United States.”
Overall the work had been very rewarding, he adds. “I feel that my work makes a difference at the local level. My team helps the local farmers and veterinarians and they see us as a positive influence. I feel really lucky to be in this job because I get to determine what is important to focus on and where to travel. I travel all over Afghanistan and work with the people in their villages and with the local district government agriculture representatives. The goal is to build the capacity and capabilities of the Afghan farmers and veterinary professionals. With a more stable agriculture economy, thus more jobs, Afghanistan will become a more stable and self sustainable country.”
“Those of us who have the privilege to be American Association of Bovine Practitioners members recognize that many of those who receive the annual prestigious awards have a common thread that shows up when their biographies are read: at one time or another they served in the military services,” notes Floyd. Many began their careers as Veterinary Corps officers, either in the Army or formerly in the Air Force, which no longer has a Vet Corps. “Having known many of these great people, they almost universally credit those experiences with widening their perspectives and experiences to the benefit of their later careers.”
Agriculture Development Teams
Agriculture Development Teams (ADTs) are resourced by Army National Guard and Air National Guard personnel with agricultural-related expertise. They are initially a bridge to expanded interagency surge and partner with the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, USDA, USAID and others to ensure maximum use of resources and ensure deconfliction of projects.
ADTs are aligned to Afghan Provinces to build sustained relationships. They are able to conduct sustained independent operations and have extensive reach-back capabilities to the U.S. including universities, agribusinesses, and professional associations.
ADTs provide expertise, advice and training in soil sciences, irrigation agronomy, horticulture, marketing, storage, pest control and animal husbandry to Afghan universities, provincial-level ministries, local farmer, and agribusinesses.
The ADTs serving in Afghanistan are working to focus and improve agricultural projects, coordinate and synchronize agricultural development throughout the province, increase food security and enhance the farm-to-market chain, reduce rural poverty and increase employment opportunities, and connect farmers to the government.
This information is from a briefing by Colonel Jim Fikes, DVM, an Army Veterinary Corps Reservist.
Army Veterinary Corps
The U.S. Army Veterinary Corps’ mission is to protect the war-fighter and support the national military strategy. It accomplishes this by providing veterinary public health capabilities through veterinary medical and surgical care, food safety and defense, and biomedical research and development. In addition, Veterinary Corps Officers provide military veterinary expertise in response to natural disasters and other emergencies. The U.S. Army Veterinary Corps is an integral part of an Army Medical Department at war, supporting a nation at war.
“The Corps consists of approximately 460 officers on active duty and approximately 750 officers in the U.S. Army reserves,” explains Lieutenant Colonel Madonna Higgins, DVM, MPH, VC, with the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps at Ft. Sam Houston, Texas. “As an Army veterinarian, you have the opportunity to utilize your professional training and experience in a wide variety of areas from three primary areas of focus: animal medicine, veterinary public health and research and development.”
Everything the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps does ultimately focuses on the warfighter — the soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines. The U.S. Army Veterinary Corps provides food safety and security inspections for all of the Armed Services and is responsible for providing care to military working dogs, ceremonial horses, working animals of many Department of Homeland Security organizations and pets owned by service members. Its members are an essential component of the military medical research team, contributing skills in the development of life saving medical products that protect all service members.
Higgins says veterinarians are a key component of the emergency response system for natural and manmade disasters. In a military theater, among other things, command veterinarians oversee food safety of the food consumed by the fighting force, including spot inspections of slaughter facilities, processing plants, farms and more.
“The Corps is in search of public health veterinarians, those with both food animal medicine experience and Master’s in Public Health degrees,” Higgins says. “However, in many cases we will train them and fund their degree program. Public health and Force health protection is our driving force.”