From Rwanda to Iraq

3 February 2016

(L-R) Australian Army medical officers Major Sean Kennaway, Colonel Peter Thomas, and Lieutenant Colonel Peter Tralaggan in the Intensive Care Unit at the Taji Military Complex Medical Facility, Iraq.

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OPERATION OKRA (Taji, Iraq): IRAQ has seen an unplanned reunion of three Australian Army medical officers who served in Rwanda over 21 years ago and are now deployed on Operation OKRA.

Current Officer Commander of the Health Unit in Iraq, Major Sean Kennaway, anaesthetist Lieutenant Colonel Peter Tralaggan and intensivist Colonel Peter Thomas did not think they would serve together again after their time in Rwanda in the 1990s.

Colonel Thomas said the trio shared stories of the similarities faced by a first rotation providing medical care in Rwanda and now in Iraq.

“In Rwanda when we first arrived we had all the challenges that a first contingent always has,” Colonel Thomas said.

“We couldn’t locate all our equipment easily in the first week.

“For example, in our intensive care unit we fixed damaged ventilators to give us some capability until our equipment arrived.”

Major Kennaway said moving modern medical equipment from Australia to the other side of the world and then establishing a hospital always has some issues.

“There was a lot of cleaning up to be done in both Rwanda and Iraq,” Major Kennaway said.

“To turn a brown-field site into what we consider a first-world best practice facility is a big task.”

According to Major Kennaway, who was a young Lieutenant during his first deployment as part of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR II), their tasks in Rwanda were very similar to their tasks in Iraq.

“Our role was to provide surgical support to the United Nations force, which is what we are providing to the Coalition at the Taji Military Complex,” Major Kennaway said.

“The major difference is that in Rwanda most of the work ended up being caring for and treating the locals.

“Due to the nature of our mission here, we are not providing care to the local population, but we are sharing best medical practices with the Iraqi Army medical staff.”

In Rwanda the Australian medical personnel were based at the Central Hospital Kigali, where they assisted local hospital staff.

“We trained nurses to give anaesthetics,” Lieutenant Colonel Tralaggan said.

“We assisted the hospital and local Non-Government Organisations in supporting their huge workload.

“I remember on Christmas eve or Christmas day we worked late operating.”

In Iraq, the Australian medics have continued similar support by sharing medical techniques with their local Iraqi Army medical counterparts.

“Treating the population in Rwanda did a lot to improve relationship with the United Nations and the Tutsis,” Lieutenant Colonel Tralaggan said.

“The thing I found troublesome was the minefields and the injuries the kids would sustain.”

Major Kennaway said it is hard to be believe it has been 21 years since they served in Rwanda.

“The injuries, thankfully, have not been anything like Rwanda but it’s important to know that the medical capability at Taji is prepared to handle any incident,” he said.

Lieutenant Colonel Peter Nasveld, who was the Officer Commanding of the Medical Company in Rwanda, is also currently serving in the Middle East as the senior Health Officer based at Headquarters Joint Task Force 633.


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