Friday, September 26, 2008

Doing What Needs To Be Done!

Today marked a milestone for our disaster relief efforts herein Haiti – our aircrew have now dropped over one million pounds of supplies over the country of Haiti. While we continue to drop bags of rice, beans, and flour, jugs of cooking oil and bottles of water, it is with a sense of remorse that we must prepare to depart this country. Operation Continuing Promise beckons us in other countries, and we must resume our commitment to these partner nations.
During the past 17 days that we have been in Haiti, we have worked and cooperated closely with USAID, OFDA, World Food Program, the UN, and many others. During the last few days, we put together portfolios of our efforts, resources, and lessons learned. Kearsarge’s capabilities will now transition to other surface and air lift assets. World Food Program contracted their own helicopters to continue the heavy air lift capabilities that Team Continuing Promise has provided these last 17 days. Our crew is working double time, still arranging for food and supplies to reach Haitians before we depart, and also preparing for a smooth transition to the NGOs who will take over. We will not leave this country without ensuring a smooth transition, and NO gap in the amount of aid delivered.
Today we conducted our first combined assessments with medical NGOs and government agencies. Our medical team visited the cities of Ennery and St. Michael. Our engineers have also been busy; today we procured material to repair a well and water distribution system in the town of Bainet. This town is home to 6,000 people, and this one well is the single water source supporting not only the town, but also the region of 20,000 residents and the only hospital. The materials were delivered to the airport in Port-au-Prince today; at the crack of dawn tomorrow our engineers will be hard at work repairing this very important well.
In the midst of grueling labors and detailed planning, Kearsarge hosted a reception this afternoon. In attendance was the Deputy Chief of Mission, Haiti Minister of Public Works, USAID Director, and senior members from OFDA, World Food Program, MINUSTAH, and the Canadian Embassy. After coordinating and communicating with these individuals for 17 days now, I was touched to see everyone sit down together, sharing food and laughter. Friendships have been forged in Haiti, and we will never forget those who we worked along side with these many strenuous weeks, those who labored as hard as us, those who share our commitment to the people, and the country, of Haiti. As we continue to transition our relief efforts to the NGOs, this one reception illuminated the impact we all have toward Haiti. There is lots to be done, so let me get back to it...

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Sincere Gesture of Kindness and Caring

The lines form early and snake through the muddy paths of the northern city Gonaives. Women stand patiently, waiting for food. They stand in the line among hundreds of others after walking miles under the sweltering sun. They do not complain, they do not push or shove. These Haitian women wait patiently because they know, with absolute certainty, that at the end of the line there is food waiting for them. At the end of the line sits the bags of rice and beans, and jugs of cooking oil, that our crewmembers delivered to this devastated area.
This line of women ends at one of the distribution points for food. During his visit, Rear Admiral Kernan wanted to see for himself what happens to the food once our helicopters drop it off, and once our volunteer working parties heave it out of the helicopters and lug it to the beach. Rear Admiral Kernan recounted later of the women’s fortitude, of seeing the thankful looks in their eyes as they received their food and placed it on their heads to begin trekking the miles back to their homes.
Today we delivered 142 metric tons of food, and 3,600 2.5 gallon bags of water to many cities in Haiti.
Our crewmembers labored long into the day again. Meetings at the U.S. Embassy illuminated more support for us to provide to Haiti. Our Doctors attended a meeting chaired by the Assistant to the Minister of Health. Present at this meeting were different NGOs, including Doctors Without Borders. A representative from Doctors Without Borders described the invaluable impact of Team Continuing Promise’s support and assistance. Before we arrived, he said, they only distributed 20 tons of food in five days. With our heavy lift capabilities we are now moving 120 tons every day. Our Doctors are coordinating with our NGO partners and the Ministry of Health of Haiti to assess outlying areas.
The U.S. Ambassador to Haiti received a brief from Team Continuing Promise Engineers after days of assessing the bridges and infrastructure. Our expertise and assessments provide invaluable information to rebuild this country.
There are so many components and players involved in this mission to alleviate the suffering of the Haitians – heaving and stacking bags of food and water, communicating and coordinating with the Haitian Government and NGOs, sharing expertise and experience within the medical and engineering fields. Yet in the midst of heavy air lifts and plans, our aircrew responded to a special request. We had received a report of an American citizen who desperately needed our help. This American citizen was a 73 year old woman. She has Type II diabetes and was having complications; she had no medication and needed to travel to Port-au-Prince, an impossible task right now except by aircraft.
When our helicopter landed at Gonaives, this woman slowly emerged from the back of an ambulance. I met her and helped her hobble toward the waiting helicopter. One of our aircrew watched her slow approach to the helicopter, and when she arrived he immediately dropped to one knee, as if to ask for her hand in marriage, and used his other knee for her to step into the waiting helicopter. I was moved passionately, but NOT surprised, by this sincere gesture of kindness. It is the kind of human spirit that the men and women display everyday and one that no matter how many times witnessed, always bring a sense of pride to be in command of such a fine and honorable bunch.
During the flight to Port-au-Prince this elderly woman motioned that she was hungry; I gave her a Kashi granola bar filled with nutritious little peanuts. When we landed at the airfield, she looked at us, said “God Bless you,” and disappeared into the heat of the day in search of medication.
Every crewmember sees the role they each play in the aftermath of the storms, and tonight as the sun sinks behind a layer of squally clouds sure to bring more rain in the days to come, we can rest for a few hours, knowing our tremendous efforts helped hundreds of Haitians to sleep tonight with full bellies and peaceful knowledge that we care. There is much to be done so I must get back to the business at hand…Helping and giving.. It is what we are here to do.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Helping Haiti

Team Continuing Promise was tasked September 5 to divert our mission in Colombia and quickly steam to Port-au-Prince, Haiti. We are here conducting Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief operations in support of the relief efforts in order to mitigate human suffering and loss of life due to the effects of current hurricanes Gustav, Hanna and Ike.
After we received the order to pull out of Santa Marta, Colombia, early – which was unfortunate but necessary in this case- we heard more and more detailed reports of the suffering in Haiti. On the day we arrived, I took an orientation helicopter ride over this country, and the despair drifted up.
Flooding, mud, and landslides had washed-out roads, all results from the successive storms. There was major damage to agriculture.
Seven days later, here we are. Flooded with flashbacks from the last time this ship and her crew completed a similar mission. One year ago we were doing the exact same thing off the coast of Bangladesh after Cyclone Sidr devastated that area. With such vivid memories of that mission, every crewmember understands the significant contribution that we make, and all eagerly volunteer their support.
In this one short week our tremendous Sailors have provided so much relief to the Haitians. Initially, everyone’s immediate concern was the destruction to the transportation infrastructure. Damaged bridges and highways are making it extremely difficult for USAID and the NGOs to deliver food and supplies from our drop sites to the remote areas. USS Kearsarge travels along the coast of Haiti, allowing our helicopters, LCU and LCM boats to journey back and forth delivering supplies to cities in the north and south of Haiti.
We still have challenges. Government, non-government and private organizations – all arrived in Haiti eager to help but were working independently of one another. Now we attend daily meetings with the Haiti Government, USAID, World Food Program, the Office of Foreign Disaster Relief, Center for Disease Control, a Canadian ship and various other partners working to relieve the suffering. Team Continuing Promise provides tremendous air and surface heavy lift capabilities that were lacking before we arrived. Integrating and communicating with these partners is paying off, with an increase in the amount of relief supplies being delivered by both surface and air lifts.
Our aircrew and boat crews are laboring around the clock. Our helicopters pick up 105 pound bags of rice and beans provided by NGOs and deliver them to hard-hit areas. Crewmembers heave and throw these heavy bags under the hot sun, and no one complains. Our LCU and LCMs also deliver food and water. Night and day, Sailors volunteer for working parties, filling these 2.5 gallon bags of water and loading them onto the boats for daily deliveries. Today we delivered 4,000 2.5 gallon bags of water to the different cities.
Each day we are out delivering food and water reveals damages that are even more extensive and expansive than imagined. The flooding recedes to reveal the full extent of devastation. Crops and homes are destroyed, especially in the valleys and low lying areas. The country's food sources have been heavily impacted and the need for future assistance will be great. Ours is to help bring immediate relief and aid to the suffering, and we believe, and are being told, that our presence is making a tremendous difference. Today a gentleman from France, who is with World Food Program, told us that it would be a “nightmare” without us here. That statement alone assures us that our tremendous and laboring efforts are doing what we intended, alleviate the pain caused by the storms and restore hope to the people of Haiti.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

On The Road Again

With the number of Hurricane’s and Tropical Storms that have developed in the past week, we have been uncertain as to whether or not we would be called upon to carry out a real time Disaster Relief mission. As many of you may have already read on the internet, we have in fact received our tasking to do so in Haiti which makes today our final day in Colombia. A wonderful and exciting day it was and a great way to wrap up our assignment here in Santa Marta.
The day began with a very early helo ride to the airport outside of the Coast Guard Base, where I was scheduled to meet the Colombian Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Barrera. Making his acquaintance today was quite an honor and it gave me such a great opportunity to meet this genuinely extraordinary man. I had read his biography prior to our meeting and while it spells out all of his fantastic achievements, meeting him in person and hearing about all he has done and continues to do is a whole other experience.

Upon meeting him at the airport he walked over to us with his Aide and greeted us with a strong handshake and a pleasant smile. He was ready and excited to head out to our mighty warship. Once we arrived and took a seat in CAPT Town’s Cabin for a cup of coffee, we learned that he had always wanted to visit and tour a ship of this class, and we are thrilled to be the ones to have afforded him this opportunity. We spoke of this mission and what our goals have been and what has been completed to date, he acknowledged and was pleased with all that was being said. He was grateful and made it clear through words spoken in perfect English.
After a brief coffee stop, we began our tour of Kearsarge. First stop was the Well deck which was really the highlight of the entire tour as nearly 100 of his own soldiers were standing in ranks awaiting his arrival. These men and women of the Colombian Armed Forces were onboard as part of a program that we have adopted during this visit, the Subject Matter Expert Exchange (SMEE). SMEE is an exchange of skills and expertise between the U.S. Military and Host Nation Militaries in such fields as First Aid, Navigation, Small Boat Operations, Damage Control and Leadership. Courses were taught both at the Coast Guard Base ashore in Santa Marta and some were taught onboard Kearsarge and today, the Admiral happened to arrive while the Leadership portion was being carried out onboard.
As we walked down the ramp to the Well Deck, you could see the pride just pouring out of the men and women that serve in the Colombian Armed Forces as their Chief of Naval Operations made his way in their direction. As he walked through the ranks he shook the hands of many of the troops and offered words of encouragement and guidance. Once he put them at ease they swarmed around him with so much excitement and enthusiasm and most noticeably, admiration. It was amazing and comparable to what our reaction would be if we received a surprise visit from the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations or even the President. Pictures were being taken left and right and just an incredible visit for those participating in the SMEE- to be on a U.S. Warship, learning and being taught by a highly respected military, and meeting their CNO!
After a few minutes we moved forward with the tour, showing the Admiral the upper and lower sections of Vehicle Stowage, the Mess decks, Dental, Medical, and then back to the CO’s cabin. We closed with another cup of camaraderie (coffee) and a gift exchange which despite being a tradition for any visit, is always a gesture not only of respect but also of friendship and partnership. The Admiral presented myself and the CO with a beautiful plaque of wood and bronze and a very unique set of cufflinks with the Colombian Flag on them that I will always treasure as a fond memory of this visit.
While it is unfortunate that we must depart Santa Marta a few days early, it is a must and we will push forward to help others that are in need of our assistance. It has been a great pleasure and such an honor to have been here. The people we met made us feel so welcome and embraced so warmly. We wish them all the best and a very bright and prosperous future. In conclusion, we executed the mission and again left with new found friendships and memories to last a life time. We have a lot in common with the citizens of Colombia and we now have one more thing in common…camaraderie.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

A Key to the Heart of Colombia

It is well known that Texans are a very proud and fun group of individuals and it was no different for Ambassador Brownfield, the US Ambassador to Colombia. He is a man with a big personality and has a wealth of knowledge and experience to offer this country and this particular mission. This all became very much apparent when I met him for the first time at the Helicopter landing zone in Santa Marta for our tour of the mission project sites. He had great information to offer on each site and he seemed thrilled to be able to look into the crystal ball at what we hope to offer each town once each project is complete.
Following our tour the Ambassador, CAPT Towns and I returned to the ship with just enough time to freshen up a bit and head back down to the Hanger Bay for a Press Conference attended by numerous Colombian Media Outlets. It was another great opportunity to provide the press and their readers a glimpse of this terrific mission and the great work being done for those in need.
Over 45 Colombian Distinguished Visitors as well as the ships wardroom and the Leading Chief Petty Officers gathered together on this night to meet and greet fellow countrymen and regional neighbors. CAPT Towns and I welcomed our guest and opened the floor to both the Ambassador and General Padilla-Commander of Nicaraguan Military Forces. Both offered insightful commentary regarding the significance of this mission and the relationship between the United States and Colombia. In the crowd you could see the gestures and head-nods moving in agreement to the dialogue of friendship between neighbors with common interests. The Ambassador, emphasized the need for increased dialogue at all levels of government to bring our two countries closer together. General Padilla put it in straight military terms in highlighting the need for our governments and our militaries to work together, closer and more often to further regional security and stability. He recounted the last time an American ship came to Colombia. He said, “In the 1990’s another American ship came to the pacific coast and stopped in Colombia to provide Humanitarian Assistance. The citizens of the country did not receive the crew with open arms but rather with great protest against their presence. Look at how the times have changed, at how the relationship has changed.” It is true. The times have changed considerably, from a time of animosity to one of friendship and most importantly partnership.
As we concluded the remarks, the Mayor of Santa Marta and the Governor of Magdalena presented myself and the CO with a tremendous honor, the Key to Santa Marta and the Cold Cross. We received these gifts on behalf of the entire CONTINUING PROMISE TEAM. It is a great honor to have been able to represent the team in receiving this honor, and I felt humbled to have been given the opportunity to lead such a talented group of unselfish men and women on this mission. This mission is about giving and it is time to return to the task at hand.