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Humanitarian Group Shares Experiences

By Capt. Steve Alvarez, USA
American Forces Press Service

MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla., Feb. 4, 2006 – While the southern United States continues to recover from the impact of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, a small group of officers at U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla., monitors human suffering in faraway places.

In yesterday's meeting of the "HAWG," or the Humanitarian Assistance Working Group, the group is briefed about the Horn of Africa, where 2.1 million people fled drought. They also listen attentively as the briefer talks about fighting in Darfur that displaced the population. They close the meeting with information about measles in Somalia, and 7,000 refugees in the Congo returning from Uganda after fleeing violence.

"The initial agreement was to provide an avenue within the coalition to advise on what kind of humanitarian assistance was going on ... (to) better coordinate aid efforts," said Lt. Cdr. Tony McCall of New Zealand's navy. He is the group's chairman.

But now, McCall said, "the function of this (group) is to provide a forum where people can provide their experiences ... on humanitarian assistance," McCall said. "This is almost a back-briefing facility," he said. "If there is a lesson learned that may be relevant ... then it's all good stuff."

About 25 coalition nations are members in the HAWG. The group gathers weekly and discusses the challenges, issues and experiences in their recent humanitarian missions.

The group focuses on humanitarian missions in operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, as well as recent disasters, but monitors all of CENTCOM's area of responsibility. McCall notes that the group has no operational control and is informational in purpose. Officers in the group share the information collected at the meetings with their nations' governments and militaries.

"Direct humanitarian assistance isn't a military function," McCall said. While military civil affairs units touch on humanitarian missions, nongovernmental organizations perform the function of humanitarian assistance, he explained.

Military forces come close to providing humanitarian assistance by supplying educational resources, reconstruction assets and conducting medical operations like disease prevention, McCall said.

When Pakistan suffered from an earthquake in late 2005, the coalition mobilized and offered help to Pakistan's senior national representative in Tampa. Efforts were coordinated and planned by the operational branch of CENTCOM.

Islamabad was the nerve center for the relief operation. Everything was coordinated from on the ground, McCall said. And while the HAWG did not have a hand in coordinating the operation, the lessons learned from the Pakistan relief operations will be shared once operations are complete.

CENTCOM officials said 82 countries or major relief organizations participated in relief missions. About 1,050 rescue and medical workers from 32 countries deployed to Pakistan. Pakistan's earthquake brought more than $680 million in the form of donations to the shattered region.

About 94 tons of medical supplies were delivered, along with 6,640 blankets, 1,939 tons of humanitarian assistance supplies, 1,582 tons of equipment, all brought into Pakistan on nearly 200 airlift missions. Additionally, relief teams evacuated roughly 15,794 people.

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