Helping the helpers |

Helping the helpers

Eben Harrell

Catastrophes like the recent Indian Ocean tsunami show how small the world has become. Across the globe, people felt the impact of the disaster; almost immediately, outpourings of support flooded the region as powerfully and impressively as the waves that preceded them.Even in Aspen, the community responded. Fund-raisers were organized. Volunteers left the mountains for distant shores. Even today, a month after the tragedy, connections continue to emerge.The Aspen Times recently received an e-mail from Tara High, a 1994 Aspen High School graduate. A doctor for the U.S. Navy, High was stationed in Okinawa, Japan, when the tsunami hit. Within days she was transferred to a makeshift base near Pattaya, Thailand.Having served as a physician for less than a year, High was not sent to the front line (senior doctors are providing care to the tsunami victims). But she has a daunting task nonetheless: To take care of more than 1,800 Marines, sailors and civilian contractors working to organize and provide security for nonprofit relief efforts.

Speaking on a cell phone from her makeshift office, High spoke to The Aspen Times about her role in what the military calls Operation Unified Assistance and some of the challenges she faces.You are a long way from home. How did you end up in Thailand?After I graduated Aspen High in ’94 I went to Pepperdine University and later to the Uniform Services University medical school in Maryland. After medical school I was sent to Japan to join the 7th Communication Battalion. They provide communication for the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force. On Dec. 31, I was flown here and told my mission was to provide medical support for those who are providing humanitarian support. The number of people under my care has climbed to over 1,800 active-duty members and civilian helpers. Have you seen any of the damage?I have not personally. I am not directly providing humanitarian assistance but I feel I’m helping indirectly because I’m taking care of the people flying the planes to deliver the goods and the people loading and offloading goods and also those running communication for the operation.

What I’ve heard is that it’s probably the most devastating thing that a lot of longtime military people have seen. For example, there’s a 200-mile road on the west coast of Sumatra and our scouting planes report that now there’s no more than two miles of road intact. People are completely isolated between those stretches. There are areas where waves traveled five kilometers inland. What does your job entail?It’s mostly preventative medicine. One of the big concerns is food-borne illnesses. We aren’t eating food that we are used to, so there’s a risk of diarrheal diseases. Respiratory infections – cold and flu – are also concerns. Mostly I go around promoting good hygiene and hand washing and telling troops to drink only bottled water.Thailand is the sex capital of the world and so my job also includes the promotion of STD prevention. Thailand has done a great job of lowering the HIV rate in commercial sex workers, but the last number I saw was that they still are 20 percent HIV-positive. It’s a big role of mine to brief active-duty members so they have knowledge to make right decisions.Is prostitution common among enlisted men there?

I think it’s common in this part of the world regardless of whether you are active duty or not. It’s a concern of mine.Do you deal with any mental health issues, such as soldiers who are troubled by witnessing the damage?We do provide counseling and we are authorized to make the decision to send soldiers home if we feel they are unfit for duty. That’s only happened once and it was a pre-existing mental condition. It’s a danger here because everyone is working such long hours, in such stressful situations, with little sleep. My day starts at 0600 and finishes at 1900. But no, we haven’t had anything related specifically to the damage.What is the mood of the soldiers?They are motivated that they are getting to help. I think everybody was pretty shocked. Most of these people were mobilized during the holiday and it was pretty amazing that they could put together this many people, pulling them off winter breaks and moving them to a foreign country for aid work. It’s a motivated group of people. Our chaplain has been taking Marines and sailors to work with local orphanages. A lot of people have volunteered.

Do you think there’s a real concern or is it more soldiers following orders? It’s been an inspiration to me, personally. This is one of the biggest things I’ll ever be a part of. They are having a large memorial service for tsunami victims this week. It’s for service members to recognize tsunami victims on the month anniversary. It’s really a genuine service. It hits home when you walk into the joint operations center and see all the different people working together, especially all the admirals and generals. You realize how big this is and how much these people need our help.Do you plan on coming back to Aspen?My father still lives there. A part of me will always be there. I have so many fond memories, particularly of the skating rink and my high school friends and teachers. I’m scheduled to go back to America for more medical training and I hope I’ll make it to Aspen then. Right now, though, my thoughts are on the job at hand.Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is

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