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Face of Defense: Physician Assistant Makes Difference in Afghanistan

By Air Force Capt. Stacie N. Shafran
Special to American Forces Press Service

BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan, Feb. 3, 2009 – What began as a short-notice tasking to Afghanistan has turned into the opportunity of a lifetime for an Air Force physician assistant.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Air Force Capt. James Parris, a physician assistant from Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is deployed as part of the Paktia Provincial Reconstruction Team in Gardez, Afghanistan. Courtesy photo
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Capt. James Parris is deployed to Gardez in Afghanistan’s Paktia province from Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., as part of the Paktia Provincial Reconstruction Team.

After training in various stateside locations, Parris arrived at Forward Operating Base Gardez and became the team’s director of medical plans.

“My work here is more of coordination, meetings, project overview and monitoring,” he said. “Before I came here, I thought my primary mission would be taking care of my team for nine months. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be coordinating projects that affect the lives of almost 500,000 Afghans.”

He supervises the three enlisted Air Force medics assigned to the team.

“Together we are responsible for taking care of our team’s illnesses or injuries. We are well prepared to care for injuries, whether combat related or otherwise. My team also conducts weekly medical training for the PRT, ensuring we’re all ready in the event of an attack on the FOB or on a convoy,” Parris said.

He’s also responsible for the base’s mass casualty plan and coordination with the U.S. Army Battalion Aid Station, which treats the Army personnel, civilians, Afghan security guards and interpreters who reside on the base.

The captain oversees programs related to the province’s medical or health concerns. In the past, PRTs offered medical civil affairs programs, which provided mobile medical care to local residents.

“This helped people directly, but over the years we found that they essentially undermined the Afghan government and the local economy,” he said. “If our medical team treats ill Afghans, this takes money away from the local doctors. If we provide medicine, the local pharmacist can’t feed his family.”

The medical civil affairs programs also had an American face on them -- “something we now strive to avoid,” Parris added.

“Our PRT’s goal is to develop and foster the Afghan government’s credibility and strength,” he said.

Most of the villages still lack power or transportation and have limited health facilities. Getting to a health facility is still a long, grueling process for some, and people die because they simply can’t get to a health facility easily. The PRT focuses on projects, such as building roads, that will connect people to their infrastructure and increase trade.

“We are striving for quality and sustainability in all areas,” Parris said. “As the saying goes, we are no longer giving people fish; we are teaching them to fish so that they can sustain long after our mission here is complete.”

The captain arranges for clinics to be staffed and ensures that equipment and medicine are available. He oversees a $7.5 million, 100-bed provincial hospital, training centers for midwives and nurses, maternity and eye-care hospitals and the building of numerous clinics.

To combat malnutrition among children, Parris is trying to institute a "strong foods" program throughout the province over the winter that will aid children under 5. Nearly 20 percent of the children here do not reach their fifth birthday, he said.

The “strong foods” program uses locally purchased items such as almonds, milk, oil, sugar and liquid vitamins to make a food paste. The paste increases the children’s weight up to a pound per week, restoring their health status to normal in as little as six to eight weeks.

With six more months remaining on his deployment, Parris said he is optimistic about the progress he and his team will bring to Paktia.

“I have always wanted to make a difference and help people live a better life,” Parris said. “That’s the reason I became a PA over eight years ago. After this assignment, I will know for sure that I have turned my dream into reality.”

(Air Force Capt. Stacie N. Shafran serves with the Paktia Provincial Reconstruction Team.)

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Related Sites:
U.S. Forces Afghanistan


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