Ryan Taggart '00 (right) with Senior Airman Byrnes and his
MWD (Military Working Dog), "Diesel".
Ryan Taggart '00 - Army Veterinarian
Dave Merrell '09: What are you doing in Saudi Arabia?
Ryan Taggart '00: I am part of an organization called USMTM (United States Military Training Mission). It was founded in 1953 with the mission to advise and assist (train) the Saudi armed forces and that is still what we do. Constantly evolving military weapons systems and the unstable climate of the region mean that the U.S. will likely be taking part in this mission for a while.
DM: What does an Army Veterinarian do?
RT: An Army Veterinarian wears a few hats. Typically, we are responsible for care of the Military Working Dogs (MWDs) (explosives detection/patrol/drug sniffers), public health as it relates to zoonotic diseases (e.g. rabies), and oversight of food safety and security. In my last job (Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station, NC) I spent the vast majority of my time caring for the MWDs and running two small animal clinics for the pets of military members and retirees (the other clinic was at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base up the road - no, I'm not kidding, it's really called Seymour Johnson). I had oversight of the food safety mission, but also had a number of Soldiers to carry out the day to day operations. I was mainly responsible for inspecting food production facilities in the area that sell to the military (eg. dairy plants, water plants, seafood processing facilities, etc.).
My job in Saudi Arabia is a little different. First, I'm all by myself, no support staff. There are MWDs for me to look after, but my job entails a lot of Preventative Medicine and Public Health. I have direct oversight of all the food that is consumed by military members and civilian employees. I'm responsible for control of zoonotic and vector borne disease and investigations of foodborne illness. I'm also the only military veterinarian in Saudi Arabia. A number of military members, civilians and Embassy/State Dept. personnel have pets, so I also operate a small animal clinic.
DM: What did you study at Haverford?
RT: I was a biology major at Haverford.
DM: How did (and didn't) Haverford prepare you for where you are today?
RT: I really think my Haverford education was second to none. The biology and general science background I gained at Haverford served me very well in Veterinary School (Cornell). Also, I think the liberal arts education (that is, English classes, history, etc.) improved my critical thinking and writing skills which have been invaluable in a position like the one I am in now, often forced to stretch my knowledge base to address new problems.
DM: Did you encounter culture-shock when you got to Saudi Arabia?
RT: Definitely. Saudi Arabia, and especially Riyadh, is a particularly conservative Muslim nation. The customs and behaviors as they pertain to relationships between the sexes is probably the most immediate cultural difference. Women always wear the abaya and the vast majority of the time are completely covered (face and all).
The country follows Shariah law closely and there are religious police to patrol the streets and malls for infractions (dress, behavior, etc.) - Riyadh is more conservative than areas like Jeddah or Dhahran and, incidentally, has the highest concentration of "muttawa"(the religious police). Oh, and the driving is tremendous. It is very dangerous to drive in Saudi Arabia. One Saudi explained it to me like this: If you have an extremely conservative society, they will look for some way to vent, to 'push the envelope'. Perhaps that is why the Saudis drive the way they do.
DM: What's the biggest difference between living in Saudi Arabia and living in the States?
RT: It's really hot. Just kidding - but seriously, it is hot.
I probably listed some of the biggest differences above. Due to the operational climate (i.e., I am a military member and we are at war in the area) travel is a bit restricted and we take some extra precautions, but that is to be expected. There are plenty of western comforts here, but like any foreign country, the local flavor/style in injected. That can be both nice and frustrating at the same time. My wife makes fun of me for it, but I've been struggling getting my head around the Saudi work week. They work from Saturday to Wednesday, and consequently, so do we. I just can't get my head around a Thurs/Fri weekend and heading back to work on Sat.
From a work perspective my New Jersey/Army-borne aggressiveness, the getting-things-done-ASAP, attitude doesn't translate well. I have learned patience and the importance of engaging in pleasant conversation prior to discussing any business.
DM: What are the biggest misconceptions Americans have about life in the Middle East?
RT: Tough to say - I'm honestly not quite sure what most people think of the region. I think if I had to guess, I would think that most Americans tend to think of this entire area as one homogenous Arab/Muslim state. The fact that there are such a variety of ethnic groups with a rich and diverse history may be lost on most people. I wouldn't be surprised, I guess, if most Americans didn't understand the difference between and Arab and a Persian or didn't appreciate the vast differences in socially acceptable behavior (especially as it pertains to women) between say Bahrain or Dubai and Saudi Arabia. The former are comparable to any city in the U.S.
DM: What sort of problems/issues do you face on a day-to-day basis?
RT: I think I mentioned a couple above. The bureaucracy is impressive. Ever read Kafka's "The Castle"? It seems a bit like that sometimes. You have to be a bit patient and hand it to the Saudis though – they have basically gone from disjointed Bedouin tribe in a vast wasteland, to a 1st world nation with all the trappings of modern life in only
about 100 years.
Also, I really wish I spoke Arabic.
DM: What do you remember most fondly about Haverford?
RT: I had a great group of friends. I'm often surprised just how many of the people I truly care about, I met at Haverford. I actually am pained that I just missed my friend Tim Mulvaney's (HC'00) wedding to Ashley Hedrick (HC'02). I really wanted to see all of our friends. That's basically what I did outside of the classroom at Haverford, I guess: played lacrosse and spent time with some of the most impressive people I've ever met.