Surgeon Lieutenant John North
1 November 2012
Postcard from Afghanistan
by Surgeon Lieutenant John North, Medical Officer
My first few weeks in Bamyan, as Medical Officer in the Regimental Aid Post at Kiwi Base, had been extraordinary. I found striking contrasts to New Zealand from the moment I and the rest of CRIB 21, the final deployment of the New Zealand Provincial Reconstruction Team (NZPRT), arrived in late September. The differences are so stark, from the uniformly brown and barren valleys, hills and mountains and the dry dust that covers everything everywhere, especially when helicopters are about to land or lift off, to the rarefied air at 2800m altitude, which takes a few days to acclimatise.
After 10 years, the NZPRT is winding down its activities in Afghanistan. The focus of CRIB 21 is to facilitate and enable Afghan forces to assume effective control of security in Bamyan so that provincial authorities can continue rebuilding their communities after the New Zealand Defence Force withdraws in 2013.
SGN LT North (third from right) with Senior Nursing Officer MAJ Sue Carter (right) and four members of the Malaysian medical contingent outside the Regimental Aid Post at Kiwi Base in Bamyan province.
As head of the medical team, which is also comprised of a Senior Nursing Officer and a Senior Medic, I supervise our three medics who are attached to the patrol teams. I also look after the health care of about 250 people at Kiwi Base. This includes NZDF personnel as well as Canadian police, US service personnel, and Afghan interpreters and contractors who form part of the Provincial Reconstruction Team. I liaise with the 30-strong Malaysian medical contingent, who train local health providers and representatives of health organisations in Bamyan town and its outlying villages. These interactions help reinforce productive relationships with Afghan communities and develop the skills of local health care providers.
Apart from the usual sport or physical training-related injuries, viral gastroenteritis, which is endemic here, comprised most of the cases we have dealt with so far. As winter approaches and the mercury starts to drop towards an expected minus 25 degrees Celsius, we expect an increased incidence in respiratory tract infections and skin problems due to the extreme atmospheric dryness.
Kiwi Base, our home for the next few months, consists of cosy wooden huts, whose walls bear the distinguishing marks and memorabilia of 20 previous CRIBs. There is a well-equipped gym for those who prefer to work out indoors rather than, or in addition to, run laps around the base perimeter or climb what New Zealand soldiers have aptly named the “PT Hill”. The steep hill poses a tough fitness challenge but those who succeed in reaching the top are rewarded with a spectacular view over Bamyan Valley and the craggy, snow-capped mountains encircling this remote, rugged and historically fascinating corner of Afghanistan.
The excellent food at the shared mess has been commended widely and earned an enthusiastic thumbs up from a group of US servicemen who visited the base recently. One of the initial highlights for me was contributing to a Friday feast, which saw all headquarters staff pulling together to cook a meal for the entire contingent.
The Afghan people are so friendly and welcoming and appreciate what we do. It is a privilege to work as part of a highly dedicated and motivated team, which continues to make a significant difference to Afghan communities. I shall always treasure my time here.