- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 30, 2004

As an American doctor who spends most of his time at children’s hospitals in the poorest places in the world bringing medical care to disabled children, I have been deeply saddened by the world’s view of our country. Since the recent events at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, an atmosphere of anger and mistrust toward Americans has reached a fever pitch in local papers. Indeed, seeing the depictions of abuse on international TV had made me ashamed to be an American and a former member of its Army.

I recently returned from Afghanistan, where in 2002, the organization I founded, CURE International, began work in Kandahar. Because of the great needs in that area, we built — and with the local health ministry, funded — a general clinic for the care of children and their mothers. That facility is currently treating approximately 10,000 outpatients a month. On this trip, I met in Kabul with members of the coalition forces to explore ways to help meet the medical needs there as part of the U.S. effort to reconstruct this war-torn country and win the peace.

Their plans are far reaching and could bring medical care to a level never seen in Afghanistan. But that didn’t impress me as much as the individuals who are administering it. For it is the people implementing the policy that ultimately determine its success or failure. Among those I met was a captain who was part of the medical corps. Her professionalism and keen interest in the welfare of the Afghan people was in stark contrast to the widely publicized picture of another woman in the military. This woman had no cigarette hanging from the corner of her mouth, no leer on her face. Her face was creased with concerns for the 50 percent of the children who are chronically malnourished.

But I was most impressed by an army colonel who had been called up from the reserves. Col. Richard Gonzales only needed to spend three months in Afghanistan. After seeing the civilians with mangled hands, chronic bone infections and twisted limbs from polio, he re-upped for an additional year. As he said, “After seeing what twenty-one years of war has done, I can’t turn my back on these people. We can do so much for them.”

At our meeting with this group of American soldiers and a representative from the State Department, the first thing asked of me was whether I would be willing to work with the U.S. military. Clearly, having an occupying army take the lead in bringing care to a war-ravaged country is not business as usual. However, having neutral aid workers, both expatriate and nationals, shot and killed while attempting to bring food and medical care to the desperately needy is also not business as usual. What is true, though, is that the events of September 11 have shaped not only a new kind of war, but new relationships, including the way international aid can be safely delivered.

There was one more member at that meeting, Peter Saleh of the State Department. This alliance of the principal U.S. International Policy Agency, the Army and an American nonprofit seemed to be strange bedfellows. But as the meeting progressed, it became clear that the common goal of bringing medical care to the people of Afghanistan far outweighed any other considerations. By the time the meeting was over we had created plans to not only begin bringing hospital management skills to the tragically under-funded hospital facilities in Kabul, but to create links between those hospitals and a proposed new hospital medical center in Kandahar.

Upon completing the meeting, I looked around. There were no press or TV photographers. The work of Col. Gonzales hasn’t made the front page of any newspaper. Only the members of his village know of the old man who had his partially blown off thumb reconstructed at the army hospital in Kandahar. The work of the State Department in bringing a coordinated effort to create a meaningful health care delivery system is dismissed as self-serving politics which is too little and too late. And the efforts of an orthopedic surgeon who is willing to dedicate one more year of his life to the care of these people remains a secret.

As he strapped on his flack jacket and placed the .45 revolver in its holster, it was a grim reminder that only the day before, just a few miles from where he is giving this humanitarian care, two soldiers were killed by snipers. He is just a typical American doing what Americans have done during wartime for far too long. He’s not making headlines. He’s just making the world a little bit better.

On balance, perhaps I don’t need to feel ashamed after all.

Dr. C. Scott Harrison is the founder and CEO of CURE International, a non-profit, faith-based organization.

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