By Dr. Cynthia Gregg Hoobler
World Vets Pacific Partnership 2015 Volunteer, Diplomat American College of Veterinary Preventive Medicine
I am a proud Texas A&M veterinarian currently on my third humanitarian ship deployment. In the first two missions, I represented the U.S. Public Health Service as a veterinarian. I was on board the USNS Comfort during Continuing Promise, where we worked in Panama, Columbia and Ecuador. I was aboard a smaller gray hull ship named the USS Byrd for Pacific Partnership 2009.
This time my deployment is aboard the hospital ship USNS Mercy in support of Pacific Partnership 2015. For this mission I am representing World Vets. World Vets has collaborated with the U.S. Navy in delivering humanitarian aid for six years and the civil-military partnership contributes veterinary expertise, skill and manpower to achieve mission objectives.
After so many deployments, I am familiar with military terms and manners. When someone states, “Make a daisy chain,” I know they are not talking about flowers.
I live, eat, and sleep on board the Mercy, transiting with the crew from port to port. I share a stateroom with four Navy physicians. My rack (bed) is 6 feet by 3 feet and is surrounded by blue curtains for privacy. We eat cafeteria style in the mess decks.
For our PP15 veterinary engagements, the team leaves the ship for missions ashore to care for livestock and companion animals. When the ship is anchored off the pier, we ride via water taxi to shore; then we take a vehicle to our various destinations.
We left Pearl Harbor in May and our first port was Fiji – a beautiful country. On one mission, we traveled partway up a mountain to treat horses. The owners rode the horses bareback to our outdoor clinic location, which was just a clearing. However, we had to wait for the horses to cool down before we could treat them. At another location, after desexing animals, we were given a luncheon of a whole fish boiled in coconut milk. The fish was served with the head still attached – something I’m not quite used to – and we ate with our fingers. It was tasty.
The second PP15 mission port was Papua New Guinea. We participated in the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) forum where we consulted with the local women on how to start small scale businesses raising pigs or chickens so they could support themselves and their families. Sometimes we traveled by helicopter to the area where we worked. The young girls who saw me exit the helicopter would ask if I was a movie star. They said, “You live on a ship and travel on a helicopter so you must be an American movie star.” I laughed and told them no. Then I encouraged them to finish their education so they could support themselves and have the opportunity to travel by ship and helicopter like me.
On the PP15 mission, we have performed desexing surgeries in a variety of locations – buildings without air conditioning in the sweltering heat, on a park platform and in a partially completed slaughter house. We have consulted on zoonotic diseases, which are diseases transmitted between animals and humans, including pigs and salt water crocodiles. We also learned so much from the local veterinarians and government officials we worked with, exchanging veterinary information and learning about their culture and agriculture.
My final stop on this PP15 journey is the Philippines.* There is a significant problem with rabies in dogs there, and also with the children who are bitten by these same dogs. We have walked door to door in the various barangays (neighborhoods) to vaccinate dogs. There are numerous strays that cannot be caught, so the problem of rabies and overpopulation continues. During my time in the Philippines I have also enjoyed learning about their culture. At the veterinary school, I ate my first “Adidas” or chicken foot. The dish is named after the tennis shoes. You crack the bone with your teeth and suck the inside. Except for the crunching of the bone, I found that the chicken foot was edible.
Have I encountered some hardships that are not typical for civilians? Yes! On the ship, we have community showers, small rooms and sleep with the ship rocking. I have hiked through jungles in the rain and heat with my backpack. We sweat constantly. We were prescribed malaria prevention medication, ate MRE’s (meals ready to eat) and I have lost 12 pounds. Would I do this type of humanitarian mission again? Yes! I will return for the kind local people, for the eager veterinary students who want to learn, for the government employees who want to help their citizens and for the beautiful children.
For my final week of this mission, we are in Subic Bay, Philippines. My dad served in the Navy during World War II at Subic Bay. I have a picture of my dad standing on the beach. I want to stand where he stood. This blog is dedicated to my deceased dad Cecil Gregg and to my father-in-law David Hoobler, Sr. who died last week. He was a bombardier in World War II. Thank you both for your service to our country and ensuring that I have the freedom and the opportunity to complete this humanitarian mission.
* USNS Mercy will continue on to the final mission port of Vietnam, but the host nation there has not requested veterinary exchanges.