Veterinarian pitches in on mission to Iraq


College Station, Texas - When the invitation came to take part in a special agricultural-veterinary mission to Iraq, Dr. William Moyer didn't need to ponder over his response.

College Station, Texas

- When the invitation came to take part in a special agricultural-veterinary mission to Iraq, Dr. William Moyer didn't need to ponder over his response.

"I jumped on it very shortly after Dr. (Edwin) Price told me he was looking for someone on the animal-health side to join the team," says Moyer, DVM and head of Large Animal Clinical Sciences at Texas A&M University's College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

Dr. William Moyer stands with a group of Iraqi children.

The U.S. Defense Department asked Price, director of the university's Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture, to assemble a team of agricultural and animal-health experts to visit Iraq for the purpose of assessing needs and then helping the military develop a comprehensive plan to enhance agriculture in the war-torn country. The "Bourlag team" would work with the Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and State.

"The opportunity to take part in this was too important to miss. Initially there were nine of us, but now it's grown to 12. I was 'in country' from May 30 to June 18, but remain a team member with regard to planning. I'd like to go back if I can work out the scheduling," Moyer tells DVM Newsmagazine.

While other team members evaluated Iraq's complex irrigation system and other infrastructure, agricultural economics and markets, soil and crops, Moyer helped assess the state of veterinary care and animal health.

"My role was to assess the animal-health needs as they exist. I wasn't there to treat animals," he says. "Iraq does have some veterinarians, as well as those (DVMs) working in the military and USDA. I am to help develop a future plan for animal health and re-establish veterinary medical education." He hopes to be instrumental in rebuilding the veterinary profession in Iraq "into something the Iraqi people can be proud of."

A country about the size of Texas, Iraq had 10 veterinary colleges before the war. "That's hard to imagine, considering that in the State of Texas we have one veterinary school," Moyer says. "All the (Iraqi) schools have been inoperable since the 2003 coalition invasion, but now the one at the University of Baghdad is cycling up again, and has about 100 students this year."

Moyer's recommendation is is to re-establish a single, well-funded, well-equipped veterinary school - probably the one in Baghdad, the oldest and largest - and let the others serve as satellite clinics. "Iraq didn't even have veterinary medicine as we know it until about the 1930s when the British came in," Moyer says. "The first school was constructed in 1955."

Because Iraq is located in what was called the "Bread Basket of the Middle East," part of the Fertile Crescent, agriculture and farming long have been important to the Iraqi people, who have depended on chickens, sheep, goats and dairy cattle for animal protein. Farmers still have dairy cattle, and use horses and donkeys for farm work, but, with few veterinarians and present conditions, animal disease is a serious problem.

Assistance amid danger

"Their needs are great and complex. The whole agricultural system is on its knees and has been since the start of the U.N. embargo in 1991," Moyer says. "The infrastructure, especially irrigation, is in poor condition. But these people are skilled farmers. They just need some help restoring things to what they once were, so they depend less on imports," Moyer says, adding that he visited places where he saw Shiites and Sunnis working together toward that goal.

The team from Texas carried on its work while embedded with the military, initially operating from Camp Victory, the military's main base camp in Baghdad. Then it moved to an FOB (Forward Operations Base) named Kalsu around the southern limits of the capital area.

"There was always a risk of danger, but much less so with each passing day," Moyer says. "When we left the FOBs to visit the farms and rural areas, we were accompanied by patrols and thus the danger level was higher. Still, I always felt secure because of the presence of our young military men and women."

Maintaining security will be important for the team to see its work through to completion, and the U.S. military, especially since the troop surge that began last year, is key to that security, Moyer says, adding that, from what he observed, the soldiers are doing an exceptional job.

"They simply defined the word 'excellent.' Every one I met was expert, disciplined, committed, polite, respected and welcomed. The Iraqi people are sick of war and appreciate what we're doing for them."

Moyer says he's unaware of any previous attempts by the military or government to create teams like this to assist a country while an armed conflict was going on. "We've provided help after wars ended, but not during them to the best of my knowledge," he says.

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