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Face of Defense: Health Care Provider Saves Lives

By Air Force 2nd Lt. Mark Lazane
Paktika Provincial Reconstruction Team

PAKTIKA PROVINCE, Afghanistan, March 25, 2010 – A U.S. military health care provider now serving with a reconstruction team in Afghanistan’s Paktika province said the austere conditions that exist there fail to deter his commitment to help the Afghan people.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Navy Lt. J.g. Vincent Lopez looks at a medical chart for a sick child with Dr. Ahmad Baseer, public health advisor for Afghanistan’s Paktika province, March 22, 2010. U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Demetrius Lester
  

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

“There are definitely obstacles to overcome,” said Navy Lt. j.g. Vincent “Doc” Lopez, a physician assistant from Phoenix, the team’s medical officer. “But with help from the dedicated Afghan people, little by little, we can provide them with stability and improve their quality of life.”

The provincial reconstruction team’s mission is to assist in the stabilization and security of this large province on Afghan’s border with Pakistan. The collection of military and interagency partners focuses on helping the province’s residents in areas such as health care, development, governance and agriculture.

Lopez takes care of the roughly 100 military and civilian members of the team and ensures they are mission-capable every day. His secondary role is to assist the Afghan government in improving the quality and quantity of health care for the people of Paktika. He provides mentorship and guidance to the medical directors in the young provincial government to help them become public health directors.

Prior to becoming a physician assistant, Lopez spent several years as an enlisted sailor, serving first with the Navy’s presidential honor guard, and then training as a corpsman. Five years later, he accepted an honorable discharge and attended Stanford University, earning a physician assistant degree and a degree in business administration. Following graduation, he moved back to Phoenix and started working in an orthopedic surgery clinic.

Life seemed to be good for Lopez, his wife, Regin, and their three sons. The money was good, he said, and job satisfaction was high, but he knew his skills could be put to even better use. He decided to become a Navy officer, beginning a new career 10 years after leaving the military.

Less than two years later, Lopez arrived here.

“I wanted to be a Navy officer,” Lopez said. “I wanted to come to Afghanistan. I knew I’d deploy. That’s why I signed up. I knew there were people I’d be able to help, and I wanted to help them.”

With medical facilities and equipment often in short supply, basic medical care for the people of Paktika can be problematic, an Afghan health care provider said.

“We have good health care for the facilities and equipment that we have,” said Dr. Ahmad Baseer, surgeon and public health advisor for the province. “The problem is we lack a lot of the specialty services that hospitals in Kabul and other places have. With the limited facilities and equipment, as well as the lower wages, it’s difficult to recruit doctors, especially specialists, to come practice here.”

It’s the sort of situation that can frustrate even the most optimistic volunteer, but Lopez is undeterred.

“The medical situation in this province is coming along quite nicely, actually,” Lopez says. “If we can increase the amount of health care workers in the province, provide increased medical facilities and increase the amount medical providers are paid, we can significantly help the health care system of this province.”

Still, Lopez acknowledged, measuring success can be difficult to do here.

“I measure my success directly from comments from my troops as well as comments from medical providers around the province,” he said. “If they feel more capable of performing their job, then I know I am doing mine correctly.”

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