Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/washington/news.aspx?id=109617
Story Retrieval Date: 5/25/2013 5:36:38 PM CST
ABOARD THE USS KEARSARGE—It was a gray day in Norfolk, Va. when the USS Kearsarge maneuvered its way into the Navy shipyard. Its shivering crew spent nearly an hour standing at even intervals along the perimeter of the flight deck “manning the rails,” clad in thin uniforms insufficient to stave off cold Atlantic gales.
But once the lines were thrown from the ship to the dock and the American flag hoisted on the bow, the voice over the loudspeaker announced “Dismissed!” Enlistees pivoted from their posts, sprinted across the airstrip and ran down the ramp and into the cargo hull to gather up duffel bags and fall into the arms of friends and family waiting at the port.
“You won the hearts and minds of our Central American and Caribbean neighbors,” Capt. Walt Towns told the officers just before they, too, disembarked.
The Kearsarge warship is typically used in combat missions, including stints in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom. But for the last four months, the amphibious assault ship encountered no enemy fire. Nor did it seek to engage any enemy forces or provide support for troops. Instead, its duties were strictly humanitarian.
For the last four months, the Kearsarge stopped in Nicaragua, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Trinidad and Tobago, and Guyana for Operation Continuing Promise 2008, providing civic, medical, dental, engineering and veterinary assistance to needy nation. It also made an unscheduled detour to Haiti to offer disaster relief.
The Kearsarge is one of two amphibious ships used in Operation Continuing Promise. The USS Boxer was deployed between April and June 2008 to El Salvador, Guatemala and Peru, and provided similar humanitarian services. Continuing Promise was modeled after a 2007 mission by a Navy hospital ship the USNS Comfort.
The Kearsarge boasted a total of 600 total hospital beds, four main and two emergency operating rooms, four dental operating rooms, a blood bank, laboratories, an intensive care ward, a pharmacy and the capability to send X-rays to military medical centers stateside for instant second opinions.
While the crew carried out its mission—which amounted to about two weeks in each country—leaders from the recipient nations were often invited on-board, and the ship’s leadership went ashore. Continuing Promise is about diplomatic outreach in addition to practical assistance.
This is one version of “soft power,” a foreign policy concept that is becoming increasingly in vogue in the Pentagon—notably as an arm of the counterinsurgency strategy employed in Iraq. Capt. Towns’ reference to “winning the hearts and minds of our Central American and Caribbean neighbors,” is identical to the rhetoric used in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“These countries are inviting us in; where we see Pax Americana, they’re seeing an opportunity not only to help their own people but to form a stronger alliance with the U.S.,” said someone familiar with the mission. He continued, “We’re trying to make good relations throughout society and the political structures—instead of a top-down approach, we’re hitting all areas of influence, which is indicative of soft power.”
This is an interesting departure from the conventional thinking of the beginning of the Bush administration.
During President Bush’s first run for the White House and before she was Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice criticized the Clinton administration for using the military for strictly humanitarian purposes. In a 2000 article in Foreign Affairs Magazine, Rice wrote, “Using the American armed forces as the world's ‘911’ will degrade capabilities, bog soldiers down in peacekeeping roles, and fuel concern among other great powers that the United States has decided to enforce notions of ‘limited sovereignty’ worldwide in the name of humanitarianism.”
Eight years later, a Navy warship is pulling up alongside a country and deploying forces that de-worm children and hand out toothbrushes.
Boots on the ground
Services offered at each stop changed based on the needs of that community, and an “ahead team” assessed the situation on the ground weeks prior to the Kearsarge’s arrival. Once there, the Kearsarge anchored off the coast of the country and members of the crew traveled either by helicopter or amphibious vehicle to the work site, bringing with them all the aid and supplies they would need.
The Navy partnered with Operation Smile, a non-profit that fixes cleft palates. In Nicaragua, civilian and military medical personnel performed 25 such surgeries. All told, 150 operations were performed on the Kearsarge and 57,000 patients were evaluated. The most common general surgery performed fixed hernias, and the most common eye procedure was for cataracts.
“For some of the people, it’s the first time they’ve seen a physician in their lives,” Cmdr. Eric Sherck, senior medical officer, said.
The mission also renovated or built schools, medical clinics and community centers. Engineers evaluated food and water systems and built playgrounds. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Derron Price remembers fixing a community center in Guyana in 12 days.
“We had heard it was in rough shape,” he said, but it was in worse condition than they had planned for, “So we adapted.”
It had an old awning that was perilously close to falling off—“Three whacks and the thing came down!” Price recalled—and the center needed new stairs, structural support, fresh paint and a playground with a double swing set. While Price had been on humanitarian missions before, it was the first time this Airman had traveled on a Navy ship.
The Kearsarge mission was a joint operation, with personnel from each military branch. Tension among the branches is traditional, but Marine Cpl. Tyler Norman said, “The Air Force and Army have been great, which was a welcome surprise.”
The mission was composed of about 1,200 Sailors and more than 150 embarked air and sea lift personnel--the troops that manned the helicopters and boats. Added to the already diverse crew were personnel from Brazil, Canada, France and the Netherlands, as well as civilians from three non-profit organizations.
Norman maintained and flew the CH-53 helicopters, and got a firsthand view of the impact the mission was having on the ground. He said the nature of the mission brought everyone together. “When you can see the people you’re affecting, it’s like one big team effort.”
“When it stops leaking, that’s when you know you’re out of fluids”
The four CH-53 Marine helicopters manned by Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 464 became indispensable when the mission took a detour on Sept. 8 to assist in Haiti following a string of four hurricanes and tropical storms that devastated the Caribbean island nation between mid-Aug. and mid-Sept. The Atlantic phase of Continuing Promise was purposely scheduled during hurricane season to be first on the scene if disaster relief was required.
“Our job here was to provide the heavy-lift assets to transport personnel and supplies back and forth into each of the countries,” explained Commanding Officer Lt. Col. William C. Bentley.
Flooding seriously hindered ground transportation of aid from the capital to outlying areas, which is where the helicopters came in handy. “We were transporting World Food Program supplies and aid from their warehouse in Port-au-Prince into the outlying areas as far as 107 miles,” Bentley explained.
Then there were the three amphibious vehicles parked in the bottom of the Kearsarge. To deploy these, the well of the ship is flooded. The vehicles float into the ocean and afterwards the water drained. “These can go anywhere in the world they want to as long as there’s a beach to land on,” said Chief Warrant Officer Richard Barr, the officer in charge of the watercrafts.
Bentley said that in 19 days the troops transported more than 1 million pounds of aid by air to Haiti. Add to that the 2 million pounds hauled by the amphibious boats and it equals significant help to Haitians attempting to regain their footing following four tropical storms.
But the mission also affected those conducting it. Petty Officer 2nd Class Josh Smith recalled the women scooping rice off a dirt road with their hands after a valuable bag had broken. “Their need was desperate,” he said, and locals were “working hand-in-hand beside us.”
“Flying in the helos, you could see where the water had risen to,” Airman 1st Class Brian Privett said. He remembered large swaths of land and bridges completely submerged by water, which were a stunning sight from his elevated vantage point.
The four helicopters, which slumbered with their hydraulically-controlled blades folded on the flight deck, are the biggest in the American military, noted Marine Cpl. Brett Buske. He knows the CH-53s better than almost anyone else—it’s his job to fix anything.
The chopper’s 32,000-pound lift capacity enables it to transport two Humvees (or even another CH-53, if the occasion arises). During flights the aircraft is prone to leakage, Buske said, but not to worry: “With these, everyone jokes around that when it stops leaking, that’s when you know you’re out of fluids. So that’s when it’s time to get scared.”
“Watch out for the alligator”
In what is perhaps the ultimate “Take Your Sons and Daughters to Work Day,” the Navy hosted a Tiger Cruise during the mission’s final three days at sea. Some of the crew’s family and friends embarked in Miami and rode the Kearsarge north to Norfolk. Special events are held (think ice cream social, bingo night, movie night and a talent show). While for some there was an atmosphere of the last days of summer camp, the Kearsarge’s crew still worked just as hard as it did during the four months prior.
Seven-year-old Katelyn Sikes had a word of warning before boarding the ship. “Watch out for the alligator!” she said with all due seriousness, referring to the officer in the plush alligator suit who takes pictures with the new shipmates. She had been on a Tiger Cruise before to spend time with her mother, Lt. Cmdr. Kathaleen Sikes, a family nurse practitioner.
Katelyn could be found wherever the action was—on the bridge where she got a lesson in nautical navigation, in the below deck trying on fire fighting gear or performing with a group in the talent show to the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way.”
And she was on Vulture’s Row, the outlook above the flight deck, to get a firsthand view of a Marine Corps spectacle while the Kearsarge was anchored off the coast of North Carolina.
Cpl. Norman and his crew were returning to New River Air Station in Jacksonville, N.C., and after making two trips transporting cargo, the Marines were “spinning all six”—referring to the six CH-53 helicopters. The Marines loaded on the helicopters and lifted off one after the other, making for a loud and impressive show of force. Before returning home, where Norman was planning to have a beer in the hangar followed by a steak dinner with his wife and two young sons, the aircraft looped north more than ten miles away, formed a line and returned to buzz the ship.
And there was Katelyn, sporting a flight helmet many sizes too big for her head.
When the Kearsarge docked in Norfolk, she, unlike the crew, was not yet ready to leave the ship.