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Feature Article - November 10, 2005

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November 10, 2005

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Engineering disaster relief:Harrowsmith mother helps Pakistani earthquake victims

by Jeff Green

Major Julia Atherley-Blight probably wasn’t thinking about Pakistani women when she joined the Canadian Military in 1984 after obtaining an Engineering Degree from the University of Toronto.

But 21 years later she found herself in Gahri Dupatta this week talking to a Pakistani woman who had received support from the Canadian Forces DART team.

“A local woman kissed my hand today,” Major Atherley-Blight said in an interview with the News on Tuesday. “We hoped we would be able to do some useful work here, but it’s quite surprising how appreciative people have been. It’s certainly something I never expected.”


Major Atherley-Blight has spent the bulk of her military career in engineering-related postings. In 2001 she was the Site Activation Engineer leading the construction of Camp Mirage in the Arabian Gulf, and in 2003 she was the Theatre Activation Team Engineer for the Canadian contribution to the construction of Camp JULIEN in Afghanistan.

When not in some far-flung corner of the globe, she lives in Petworth, near Harrowsmith, with her husband and three children.

A year and a half ago, Major Atherley-Blight took on a new role as Deputy Commanding Officer of the Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART), which is based in Kingston.

The DART has 216 members, but the vast majority of those people, with the exception of 14 full-time people, have other duties with the military and are called on to serve with the DART only when it is deployed. It was set up, Atherley-Blight said, in response to a situation that occurred in Rwanda in 1994. “We realised that there was an imminent epidemic in Rwanda and we cobbled together a group, but it was too late.”

So the DART team was assembled in the mid-nineties, including engineers, medical personnel and others so the military would have a tool it could use for large-scale humanitarian disasters.

“I have to say that last year we were starting to have doubts about the relevance of DART,” Major Atherley-Blight offered. “It had been five years since it had been deployed and we were starting to think it was not something that was needed. That all changed with the Tsunami. We realised from Sri Lanka that it was exactly the right capability for a large scale disaster.”

The DART brings in all of its own supplies, so it does not stress the capacity of the region it is helping and it does not have to spend time finding food and shelter for its own people. The unit is deployed in a measured fashion. An advance team, which includes the Commanding officer, goes in first. Meanwhile, as the Deputy Commanding Officer, Major Atherley-Blight remains back in Canada and co-ordinates the supplies and personnel that are to follow.

The advance team determines specific needs for each situation.

“For this mission, we realised we needed to bring a female doctor with us, as women cannot be treated by a male doctor, because of their religion. We made sure we have the right cross section of skills, built a very austere camp, and got the people out working,” said Atherley-Blight.

The 46-member medical team based at Gahri-Dupatta includes 19 women.

But it is a challenge when arriving in a disaster zone just to determine how to be of help.

“The most difficult thing, in a chaotic country, is determining where the needs are, and how to get there. We had to find maps; we had to develop contacts to get information; and all of this with a language barrier to overcome,” Atherley-Blight said of the early days of the mission.

The two major thrusts for the DART are providing clean drinking water and primary medical care. In Pakistan the DART has brought four reverse osmosis purification units. Close to a million litres of water have been distributed and over 3,000 people have received medical treatment so far.

Because of the remoteness of the region, DART members found that relief agencies had not established a foothold in the region when they established their camp at Gahri Dupatta. It’s only very recently that OXFAM and Medecins-Sans-Frontieres have arrived, and there is a hospital nearby that the Red Crescent Society operates. All of these developments are very important for the DART, because the team is only mandated to stay in place for a short period of time, 40 days or thereabouts, and co-ordinating with international and Pakistani agencies to hand over the role the DART has been fulfilling is a major task as well.

All of these efforts keep DART members working from “the moment we wake up until we go to sleep at night,” says Julia Atherley-Blight.

When the DART returns home in late November or early December, Julia Atherley-Blight will be reunited with her husband and children Brianna, 12, Keifer, 11, and Dana. The children attend St. Patrick’s school in Harrowsmith.

“The kids don’t really like it when I leave, but they are being very good about it. I talk to them once a week, and I will have some time off after the mission is over.”

Major Atherley-Blight will remain as Deputy Commander of the DART until at least next summer. The experience she, and the entire DART, have gained in the past year will help them to make the DART more effective when future disasters strike.

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