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Community Effort Affords Afghan Refugee Mothers Baby Formula

USMC Lt. Col. Natalie Trogus continues her work to help Afghan women in the U.S.


Humanitarian Crisis

U.S. Marines receive donated supplies for Afghan refugees on Sep. 30, 2021 at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia. (Photo Courtesy of Natalie Trogus)

After more than two decades in the U.S. Marine Corps, including six combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan,  Lt. Col. Natalie M. Trogus had seen many different kinds of crises. Yet the most significant response she oversaw in her career, in a personal capacity, took place over the past few weeks at a Marine base just a few dozen miles outside of Washington, D.C.

Trogus has worked extensively in Afghanistan, most recently in 2019 and 2020 as a Gender Advisor to the Afghanistan Ministry of Defense’s Gender and Human Rights directorate.

When the U.S. military pulled out from Afghanistan in August, she received hundreds of calls from her Afghan partners asking for help exfiltrating the country.

Working to help them escape, Trogus reached out to base leadership at nearby Marine Corps Base Quantico, which was hosting thousands of Afghan refugees, to learn more about what they needed.

The answer: medical supplies and nutritional support, especially for pregnant women, new mothers, and infants.

“Some just had a small backpack, they weren’t able to bring many items,” Trogus told Direct Relief about the Afghans who were able to evacuate. “There were so many refugees coming to sites, so demand was high,” she said.

(L to R)  Lt. Col. Natalie Trogus, Whitney Bowman-Zatzkin, and Donney John stand with donated supplies for Afghan refugees at the NOVA ScriptsCentral parking lot on Sep. 30, 2021. (Photo Courtesy of Jake Zatzkin)

Wondering how she could help, she began to think of her friends and personal contacts in her community. The answer would come from her daughter’s scout troop – she discussed the situation with a fellow mother, Whitney Bowman-Zatzkin, who runs a healthcare consulting firm.

“…This was another wave of tremendous grief and anxiety and it became just as important to help a friend who was in need as it was to help refugees in need,” Bowman-Zatzkin said.  

Bowman-Zatzkin mined her healthcare-related network, including her father, a physician, and connected with a charitable pharmacy, NOVA ScriptsCentral, where she serves as a board member. She hoped they would have a line on donated baby formula and other staples for pregnant women, new mothers, and infants. Meanwhile, she and Trogus bought formula and other supplies, out-of-pocket, to try to help.

“She was able to work her magic,” Trogus said.

At NOVA ScriptsCentral, Executive Director Donney John contacted Abbott Laboratories to request their Pediasure nutritional supplement. As the company was processing the donation request, a senior executive suggested John connect with Direct Relief, a longtime partner of NOVA ScriptsCentral—which he did. The following evening, five pallets of requested items were packed at Direct Relief’s warehouse in California, ready to ship across the country to Virginia.

The shipment included more than 14,000 bottles of Pediasure, Similac and Ensure, hygiene kits, Dove soap, and disinfectant wipes.

For John, the mission was similar to the daily work he and his colleagues do to support local safety-net clinics. It also reflects the sometimes unexpected ways that safety net health providers can further contribute to their neighborhoods.

“Our goal is always to work to serve underrepresented communities. We serve many undocumented individuals and others who are new to the country. This continues the mission and is not anything that’s out of the ordinary for us,” he said.

Last year, NOVA ScriptsCentral provided 2,647 people with medications valued at over $3 million and supported other organizations with close to 20,000 pieces of PPE, including 20,450 masks. Since 2006, NOVA ScriptsCentral has dispensed $80 million worth of medications to partner clinics for distribution to 30,000 low-income, underserved, and uninsured patients.

“We are helping the people who have no insurance. There are not many resources available to these communities. When you’re cash-paying, undocumented, you don’t qualify for many benefits. We fill that void. Were we not around, there would be countless numbers of people who would be struggling to get life-saving medicines,” he said. NOVA ScriptsCentral relies primarily on private donations from local foundations and individuals.

Once the shipment arrived last Thursday at NOVA ScriptsCentral, Trogus and her husband, along with Bowman-Zatzkin and her husband, came to pick it up.

Nutritional supplements, feminine hygiene kits, and other donated supplies for Afghan refugees at Marine Corps Base Quantico. (Photo courtesy of Jake Zatzkin)

“We had been buying and collecting 20, 30, maybe 50 bottles, so when I saw a tower of hundreds of bottles, I stared at it and couldn’t get out of the car. I had to catch my breath,” Bowman-Zatzkin said. “It was really overwhelming,” she said. John and the NOVA ScriptCentral staff processed the shipment and then helped load the supplies onto Natalie’s truck and trailer, which she and her husband then transported to Quantico.

Asked why individuals and not the Department of Homeland Security – the agency responsible for Afghan refugees – led the effort to get supplies, Trogus was uncertain. She did note that the community response has been so substantial that it “overloaded the capacity” of the base to process all the donations.

Regarding the request for pre-mixed formula, Trogus said that there are concerns about the ability to sterilize the sinks refugees have access to on the base and potential misunderstandings due to labels written in English.

Though her career has taken her to the high levels of strategic advisory roles, Trogus sees her work in helping refugees here in the U.S. within a continuum of the work she has been doing to help further gender integration and human rights in Iraq and Afghanistan – as well as in the U.S. She was a pioneer in her role as a combat engineer, a role previously closed to women.

Describing the past months as “very challenging, stressful, and hard,” Trogus said that she has kept in constant contact with her former colleagues, many of whom she became very close with. “I personally never left Afghanistan,” she said.

And even as the larger forces can seem overwhelming, for Trogus, her actions over the past weeks to help newly-arrived mothers and children, as well as thousands of others, came down to something very fundamental for her.

“My Marine brothers and sisters needed help and I helped them to the best of my ability,” she said.

Direct Relief has supported Afghan refugees through its long-standing partnerships with NOVA ScriptsCentral, Asian University for Women, Hope Foundation, Reach Out WorldWide, and directly to the Afghan Girls Robotics Team.

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