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Neil Smith - Melbourne

A Navy medical officer has been deployed on his first land-based operation, assigned as the Senior Medical Officer for the Australian Defence Force in the Middle East region.

From March until June this year, the Melbourne respiratory and sleep physician, who is normally responsible for only one patient at a time, was suddenly responsible for the medical care of about 2000 deployed soldiers, sailors, airmen, Defence civilians and contractors.

For Commander Neil Smith, working for Australia’s National Command Headquarters at Camp Baird meant overseeing the health and well-being of personnel deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as Navy’s sailors serving at sea.

Commander Smith said his main role on Operation Accordion in the Middle East was to oversee and maintain the deployed troop’s health, manage them if they became injured or ill, and evacuate them to Australia if required.

“I’ve been with the Naval Reserve for 15 years and normally deploy at sea as a ship’s doctor or with Navy’s Maritime Operational Health Unit,” he said.

“This was my first land operation – and there are a lot of Army people and unusual acronyms – and it’s also my first headquarters deployment.

“As a civilian doctor I work in private practices at Hoppers Crossing and John Fawkner Private Hospital in Coburg, which is near my home in Brunswick, and in the public system I work at Mercy Werribee Hospital and the Alfred Hospital.

“Working with the Australian Defence Force medical staff in the Middle East demonstrated to me the high level of training, professionalism and enthusiasm, often in somewhat arduous circumstances.

“Our aim was to give our troops medical care comparable to what they would receive in Australia.”

In Afghanistan, at Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport, a senior medical officer, nursing officers, dental staff, a scientific officer (pathology) and medics work in the US-led Role 2 Enhanced NATO Medical Treatment Facility alongside US, British, Turkish, Danish and Czech personnel in support of the NATO-led Resolute Support mission.

In the British-led Role 1 Hospital at Camp Qargha, near Kabul, a small team of medical staff support the trainers and mentors at the Afghanistan National Army Officer Academy and the force protection element who provide security and protected mobility.

Australia’s main support base in the Middle East, Camp Baird, also has a Role 1 facility staffed by Army, Navy and Air Force doctors, nurses and medics and is also the base for a Psychological Support Team.

In the Australian-led Role 2 Hospital in Taji, Iraq, there is a team of about 20 Australian staff including doctors, nursing staff and specialists who support the frontline medics and provide significant services to the coalition facility.

Onboard HMAS Warramunga, which was assigned to Combined Task Force 150 under the Combined Maritime Forces in the Arabian Gulf, there was a doctor, two medics as well as the ship’s medical emergency team.

Commander Smith was already a sailor before he enlisted in the Navy Reserve and skippers a 34-foot yacht named ‘Elise’ which he regularly sails on Port Phillip Bay.

“I always wanted to combine being a doctor and a sailor and 15 years later was on operations in the desert,” he said.

“I deploy with Navy for at least a couple of months each year, mainly at sea with amphibious ships such as HMAS Canberra in the Primary Casualty Reception Facility.

“As a senior consultant physician in the Victorian Public Hospital system for the last 20 years, and an Adjunct Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Notre Dame, I regularly guide, advise and teach junior doctors, which I also did during my deployment.

“Defence has given me excellent training in leadership and organisational management and I’ve received military medical training in trauma, resuscitation, aviation medicine, diving medicine, tropical diseases and disaster response – opportunities I’d not normally get in civilian health care.

“It was great to be a part of the dedicated and hard-working headquarters team, whose goal was to achieve our mission of supporting our personnel on operations.”

Operation Accordion sustains and supports Australian operations in the Middle East region enabling contingency operations and enhancing regional relationships.

There are about 500 personnel deployed on Operation Accordion, which comprises headquarters staff, a Theatre Communications Group, a Force Support Element, an Expeditionary Airbase Operations Unit, an Air Mobility Task Group, a Joint Movements Coordination Centre and the ADF Investigative Service.