By Sgt. David TurnerOctober 1, 2008
CAMP VICTORY, Iraq - When the U.S. Department of State gifted a pair of rare Bengal tigers to the Baghdad Zoo in August, their transportation from the United States to Iraq in the belly of a cargo plane required much care. Soldiers from the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division led the initiative to find the tigers, but when it came to handling the precious cargo, a specialist was needed to look after the animals' health. Who to call'
Why, the Army veterinarians, of course.
Many Soldiers don't even know the Army has veterinarians, much less an entire Veterinary Corps. Maj. Freddie Zink is a member of that select few, and he is one of only 10 or so currently deployed to Iraq. Zink, the division veterinarian for Multi-National Division - Center, not only gets choice assignments (such as escorting endangered species), he also gets a unique picture of Iraq and its natural resources.
"My main job here at division is agriculture subject-matter expert," he explained from his office at Task Force Mountain headquarters on Camp Victory. "One of the top priorities here at division is agriculture; water, electricity and agriculture are our top three," he said, referring to the continuing mission of rebuilding the area's infrastructure and improving the economy.
Zink regularly works with Iraqi veterinarians and farmers, whether it's helping with vaccinations of farm animals or advising on projects from poultry farms to beehives.
Zink, like many of the other reservists in the 445th Civil Affairs Battalion, brings valuable civilian skills to his job in the Army. Zink practiced veterinary medicine in Piedmont, S.C., for 20 years before retiring. He sold his practice, and then accepted a commission in the Army Reserve. After officer's training, he volunteered to deploy with the 445th, and is now serving his first tour of duty.
His years of on-the-job experience help Zink to assess the needs of Iraq's many practicing veterinarians. Though agriculture at Camp Victory may not be as high-tech as it has come to be in the U.S., Zink said vets need better, more up-to-date training, as well as better access to supplies in order to keep Iraq's farms healthy and prospering.
"They have not had hardly any continuing training in the past 15 years," he said of the Iraqi vets he has met during his frequent civil/military engagements, where he teaches and supervises new techniques. "There are ten veterinary schools in Iraq, and really they need one, two at the most," he said.
Though Iraqi schools train as many as 1,000 new vets a year, unemployment in the field is high, he said.
The other challenge, a recurring theme for Iraq's rural farmers, is access to quality supplies.
"The problem is that it's hard getting drugs, vaccines and supplies," he said.
Zink sees a few key aspects of agriculture in southern Iraq that need the most attention. The most vital, he said, is managing water resources.
"The biggest problem with agriculture right now is getting irrigation canals repaired, getting the pumps fixed and getting the canals lined," he said.
With thousands of miles of river-fed canals supporting farms, maintenance and control can be tricky.
"There needs to be some strict enforcement on water resources. Getting water to the farms is very important," he said.
Zink would also like to see locally produced feed for animals. Without such an operation, he said, farmers rely on expensive imports and feed that varies in quality.
"We need a feed mill in south central Iraq that is modern and can provide economical, quality feed," he said.
Zink sees big potential in the once-thriving aquaculture industry in southern Iraq. Fish farming on a large scale relies not only good water management and inexpensive feed, but help from science.
"They have not brought any new genetic (strains) into the aquaculture since 1979, and the fish have poor feed-to-gain ratios," he explained. "Just by bringing new genetics in, within two years, the fish experts say, it will increase fish production by 35 to 40 percent."
Zink looks forward to helping solve some of the challenges he sees during his time in Iraq.
"Working with the agriculture infrastructure in the country as a whole - it just needs a lot of work, and I've enjoyed looking at the big picture, trying to see what's broken and how to fix agriculture in general," he said.