Little difference exists between civilian life in Mays Landing and serving in Afghanistan with the U.S. military for Glenn Battschinger.
The 52-year-old Atlantic County resident will be deployed to Afghanistan as part of the Army reserves in a couple of weeks. Before he does, Battschinger has a humanitarian mission to complete there that isn’t part of his official military duties.
In some ways, it may help him and other U.S. troops down the line.
Battschinger is on his way to Jalalabad, where he will reunite with Muslam Hagigshah, an 8-year-old Afghan boy, whom he helped bring to New Jersey a couple of years ago to surgically correct a birth defect. Muslam, who was born with his bladder outside his body, needs to return for one final procedure, but because his escort encountered visa problems, Battschinger has offered to accompany the boy to New Jersey.
The trip also will allow Battschinger to see if he can help expedite the visa for a second Afghan boy, Bilal Sharif, who was born with the same defect.
Helping Afghan health officials coordinate these humanitarian trips contributes to better relationships between the two countries and help builds trust, Battschinger said.
“That reduces the risk to U.S. forces,” he said.
Battschinger, an Atlantic Highlands native, spent 12 years as a full-time commissioned officer, including seven with the Army special forces, before resigning to start a family and a new career as a publisher of advertising magazines. He eventually sold a publication he started in Maine and took a job as a project manager for the New Jersey-based American Water Co.
Shortly after the Sept. 11, 2011, terrorist attacks, Battschinger began yearning for military life. In 2009, the divorced father of two joined the reserves, joining a civil affairs unit tasked with helping to set up the government and rebuild the region in Afghanistan.
It was during his tour in 2010 that Muslam and his mother approached Battschinger for help. Unable to connect the boy with doctors who could perform the surgery in Afghanistan, Battschinger asked his own mother for help in researching the issue.
She eventually contacted Passaic County-based Healing the Children nonprofit, which agreed to take on the charity case, including finding the necessary medical staff and facility willing to volunteer their time and services, said Pamela DePompo, the nonprofit’s director. The group also found a host family willing to take in Muslam while he underwent surgery.
Dr. Moneer Hanna, a pediatric urologist, performed the surgery at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Essex County. They were able to put back Muslam’s bladder in the earlier operation. The final procedure will be to make sure the bladder is functioning properly, augment the organ if necessary, build intestinal muscle and perform reconstructive genitalia surgery, Hanna said.
The case was unusual not only because bladder exstrophy is a rare birth defect — affecting one in every 30,000 babies — but Muslam’s age also astounded Hanna. Surgery is typically done immediately after birth or within a few days, said the doctor, who has performed 173 similar procedures.
“I admire his courage and his ability to hold on for six years,” Hanna said of Muslam.
While rare, bladder exstrophy is known to affect five other boys in the country, Battschinger said Afghan health officials told him.
Bilal, the other boy with the same condition, is two years older than Muslam and was born in an Afgan refugee camp in Pakistan, Battschinger said. Bilal now lives with his family in an internally displaced-person camp in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, where the boy also works in a brick factory, Battschinger said.
Bilal’s family has been trying to obtain a visa that will allow him to travel to the United States for the surgery but has been unsuccessful, Battschinger said. That is one reason he is eager to return to Afghanistan to help that process, Battschinger said.
Meanwhile, Battschinger’s supporters at home are helping him raise money to cover surgical and travel expenses for Bilal if he is approved for the trip.
“I really believe in what he’s doing.” said Donna Clementoni, 55, of Egg Harbor Township, who met Battschinger through her volunteer work with the Department of Defense’s Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve program.
The two have set up a web page, giveforward.com/savebilalslife, to raise money for Bilal.
“If he can put his life on the line, the least we can do is raise money to help,” Clementoni said.
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