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Sanitarian engineers become problem solvers in Afghanistan

By Spc. Kelly Hunt, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service

BAGRAM, Afghanistan, Oct. 31, 2003 – In a country torn apart by war, it's hard to find documentation on anything, let alone information regarding the health issues that face Afghanistan today.

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First Lt. Bill Vogt, Coalition Joint Civil Military Operations Task Force, collects a water sample in Kapisa Province as part of sanitarian engineer efforts to locate the source of diseases in Afghanistan. Photo by Spc. Kelly Hunt, USA

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So instead of becoming archeologists and trying to dig up the lost records, sanitarian engineers stationed at Bagram Air Base decided to collect data and create their own records, starting with testing the country's water supplies.

"When I first got here I was overwhelmed," said 2nd Lt. Quentin Lightbourn, Coalition Joint Civil Military Operations Task Force. The engineers began by asking local people questions, and "we started from there," he said.

Describing the sanitarian engineer's role as being "a problem solver," Lightbourn said sanitarian engineers usually work on military issues dealing with U.S. soldiers, but that this is a different mission.

"For civil affairs, I'm investigating the health problems that are accruing in Afghanistan," he said. "We're trying to determine what's making these people sick. That's what my concern is -- public health."

With no documentation or records of public health, troops were unsure what they were up against.

"The country's been worn and torn, (and) everything that's been recorded has been lost or destroyed by the Russians or (the) Taliban, so basically what we're trying to do is create a standard," said Lightbourn. "We're generating all this data that's been lost."

Starting over means getting down to the very basics. For this team, it meant collecting samples to generate records.

"We started off by recording everything we do," said Lightbourn. "Our goal is to travel across the countryside and get water samples."

This task is easier said than done. There are an enormous amount of water supplies that need to be tested, and in their time here, sanitarian engineers have managed to collect nearly 200 samples from various areas throughout the country.

What they have found so far is that nearly 60 percent of the water samples collected have been fairly clean, which means the big problem lies somewhere else. Troops began planning their next move.

"Another aspect is the habits (of) the people as far as dealing with sanitation," said Lightbourn. "When I do our (civil affairs) missions, I look around to see what's different about this village from the next."

Lightbourn and his team work hand-in-hand with the medical teams in Bagram to collect information on the various diseases in the country and in what villages each disease thrives in. The information will supplement the sanitation investigation.

"Treatment of the water is important, but what's most important is education," he said. "War is over now; it's time to start living."

A side project of the team is the rebuilding of the water laboratory in Afghanistan.

"There is a water laboratory, but because of war, the place has been stripped of all its equipment," said Lightbourn. "We're in the process of ordering equipment, giving it to the Afghan people, and at the same time, training them.

"Helping to build their infrastructure; that's the whole purpose," he continued. "We're helping them to get their lives back together."

This investigation of the health situation in Afghanistan is a large project for the sanitarian engineers here, and Lightbourn said it could last for years.

"We're just acquiring the knowledge," he said. (It's a) big job, yes, but we're just chipping at it a little at a time."

(Army Spc. Kelly Hunt is assigned to the 4th Public Affairs Detachment.)

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageAfghan children watch as sanitarian engineers test the well they're using in Kapisa Province, Afghanistan. Photo by Spc. Kelly Hunt, USA  
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