Face of Defense: Sailor Battles Malnutrition in Afghanistan
By Douglas H. Stutz
Special to American Forces Press Service
BREMERTON, Wash., Dec. 29, 2009 Navy Chief Petty Officer Connie Smith, a hospital corpsman, is helping to combat malnutrition in Afghanistan.
Smith is involved with the Strong Food Project, which fights malnutrition among local Afghan children under the age of 5.
“The project basically is to help kids from 6 to 60 months regain a normal appetite,” explained Smith, who is deployed from Naval Hospital Bremerton here to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan.
According to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force Afghanistan, the Strong Food Project began in November 2008 in the southern Afghan province of Zabul. The project is composed of five 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 every day hoping to make a difference in the lives of the Afghan people,” said Smith, a Navy veteran with 21 years of service.
According to the CIA World Fact Book, the infant mortality rate in Afghanistan is 151.95 deaths per 1,000, behind only the West African nations of Angola and Sierra Leone.
The infant mortality rate “really is the barometer of the level of health of the country,” said Navy Capt. Fred Landro, a branch clinic director at Naval Hospital Bremerton.
Afghan civilians carry a high degree of risk for major infectious diseases. Food and waterborne diseases include bacterial and protozoan diarrhea, hepatitis A, and typhoid fever. Other prevalent diseases include malaria and rabies.
Consequently, Smith and her medical team find there is no shortage of opportunity to employ their skills in Afghanistan. Smith also discovered that her gender augments her corpsman’s knowledge in gaining access to Afghans in need.
Females comprise more than 48 percent of the Afghan population. Smith said she has provided medical support and health care for many Afghan women and their children.
“Most of the people are happy to see us,” Smith said, noting that Afghan women seem more comfortable obtaining medical assistance from female health care providers.
“The local [Afghan] women would ask to see me,” Smith said.
Smith also has participated in humanitarian assistance projects such as women/children health clinics set up at Afghan security force bases.
“We saw almost 600 patients within a three-day period at one of our arranged clinics,” Smith said.
Smith recalled helping a young Afghan girl who’d gotten gum stuck onto her neck. The girl was crying “because she couldn’t nod her head without getting the gummy residue stuck on her chest,” Smith said.
“We finally got it off by rubbing lotion on her neck and by giving a good scrub,” Smith said. “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 than 3 years old.”
Smith said she’s preparing for a holiday season away from her family.
“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 said she regularly communicates with her husband Jeffrey, also a chief corpsman, and their two boys. Yet, she said, it is hard being separated from her family during the holidays.
“Luckily, I can talk to them almost every day and hear their voices, which I am truly grateful for,” Smith said. “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.”
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan “we are all making a difference,” Smith said. “We are making history. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
(Douglas H. Stutz serves with Naval Hospital Bremerton public affairs.)