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Gates Plans to Increase Humanitarian Missions in Latin America

By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service

PARAMARIBO, Suriname, Oct. 6, 2007 – The U.S. Defense Department will likely increase its humanitarian efforts in Central and South America, as well as support of local police and military forces to help allies in the region combat narco-terrorism and illegal drug and arms trafficking.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said here today that the new initiatives are part of an “evolving mission” of U.S. Southern Command.

The secretary referenced the new focus in his remarks today at the end of his five-day, five-country trip to Latin American.

The secretary finished his trip by also formally announcing the end of the four-month, 12-country humanitarian mission of the U.S. Naval Ship Comfort, now anchored off the coast here as its final stop.

“I think that this is part of the evolving mission of  Southern Command, in terms of not just providing medical care and training, as the Comfort has done, but also training and professionalizing the military officers and militaries in other countries, building bilateral cooperation in dealing with transnational threats and building partnerships when dealing with the wide range of challenges that face us,” Gates said. “I think that these are the kind of missions that we have in mind: to focus on building partnerships and increasing the capabilities of the individual countries in being able to deal with those challenges.”

Gates referenced a focus similar to that of the Defense Department’s newly established African Command. There has been discussion among defense department officials about restructuring SOUTHCOM to accommodate a more humanitarian and interagency focus

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell, traveling with the secretary, said traditionally combatant commanders focus primarily on military readiness in a region, and less on humanitarian missions -- a model than will not work here. The region should expect more of an effort to balance humanitarian aid with a commitment to military readiness.

“You can’t focus on one to the exclusion of the other, particularly in Latin America,” Morrell said.

Gates said he spent most of his time during this trip listening to top officials, hearing their issues and needs, and discussing shared concerns about transnational crimes. He said specific requests from countries for support varied and included equipment, training, joint exercises and more humanitarian activities.

“We have strong relationships in Central and South America. I think this trip has been about identifying ways in which to further strengthen those relationships,” Gates said.

The secretary started his trip Oct. 2 in El Salvador, and then went on to Colombia, Chile, Peru, and finally ended here. Suriname is bordered by Guyana to its west, French Guiana to the east, and Brazil to the south. The country is slightly larger than Georgia and is home to about 500,000 residents. This is its first high-profile visit by

a senior U.S. official.

Gates said that in past efforts, the two militaries have jointly trained emergency medical technicians and have worked together to construct and renovate medical clinics and schools.

“The United States and Suriname enjoy a cooperative defense relationship. In that spirit we hope to work more closely together in defending our borders against unlawful trafficking, combating crime and protecting our citizens from natural disasters,” Gates said.

After touring the USNS Comfort off of Suriname’s coast today, Gates had high praise for the ship, its staff and recent mission. He said it symbolized the United States’ intention of cooperation in the region, and that the U.S.-Surinamese relationship can now build on the goodwill generated by the ship’s contributions there.

“The Comfort’s mission has now ended. However, as the result of that mission, the friendship with the Surinamese people has been strengthened and our bilateral relationship has been renewed,” Gates said. “In the spirit of shared values and interests our two nations can now build upon the Comfort’s success to achieve an even closer degree of continued cooperation.”

This was the ship’s first large-scale humanitarian assistance deployment to Central and South America and the Caribbean. The ship’s 780-person staff worked to treat almost 2,500 patients in Suriname. Some needed treatments for multiple complaints, so, in all, doctors, nurses and technicians delivered nearly 8,400 treatments. Doctors performed 42 surgeries in Suriname.

All totaled, in the 12 countries on the ship’s itinerary, the staff treated 97,000 patients for a total of almost 380,000 treatments, and performed more than 1,100 surgeries.

Of the 12 countries, El Salvador saw the most patients treated at 12,500. Ecuador, though, had the most total treatments, including multiple treatments per patient, at 51,000. Officials said that was because the ship was able to dock at the pier of those two countries and patients, equipment and supplies did not have to be shipped or flown to the boat.

Dental care was probably the highest priority at many of the stops, besides general medical treatments. Overall, dentists and staff treated 25,000 patients on the tour, extracting 300 teeth, and performing 4,000 fillings,7,000 sealings, and 20,000 fluoride applications.

The Comfort also stopped at Belize, Colombia, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru and Trinidad and Tobago. The Comfort leaves tomorrow to return to the United States. It will make stops in Miami, Fla., and Norfolk, Va., before returning to its home port of Baltimore, Md., on Oct. 19.

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Related Sites:
Travels with Gates
Photo Essay: Defense Secretary Gates Visits Paramoribo, Suriname
Photo Essay: Gates Visits Peru


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