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DoD Briefing on Operation Unified Assistance, the Post-Tsunami Relief Effort

Presenters: Lt. Gen. Robert R. Blackman, Commander of Combined Support Force 536; Mark Mcdonald, Public Affairs, Combined Support Force 536; Gerhard Putnam-Cramer, Chief, Emergency Services Branch, United Nations Office of Humanitarian Affairs;
January 07, 2005 9:10 AM EDT

(Note:  General Blackman and his colleagues brief via teleconference from Utapao, Thailand.)


            BRYAN WHITMAN:  Good morning, and thank you for joining us this morning.  And I'd like to thank the people that we have on the other end of the line.  Lieutenant General Blackman is in Utapao, and he's got some colleagues with him that are also helping him in this relief effort.  And I think I'll let them go ahead and introduce themselves. General Blackman is going to kind of give you a quick overview of what they've been doing, and then we'll open it up for questions.


            Obviously he can't see you, so when we get into the questions, if you could just identify yourself and your news organization, that would be helpful to him.


            So with that, let me turn it to the folks in Utapao right now.


            MR. MCDONALD (sp):  Good morning.  This is Mark McDonald (sp), the public affairs -- for Combined Support Force 536.  Today's briefing will be conducted by Lieutenant General Robert R. Blackman, the commander of Combined Support Force 536.  He will be joined by Mr. Gerhard Putnam-Cramer, the United -- from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs -- and he is the chief of Emergency Services branch -- also Mr. Tom Fry, from USAID Disaster Assistance Response Team at Utapao.


            The general will have a brief statement to open with, and will be followed by Mr. Putnam-Cramer and then Mr. Fry.  And then we'll respond to your questions.


            MR. WHITMAN:  We'll go ahead and get you the spelling of all those names right after this.


            GEN. BLACKMAN:  Good morning to you.  This is Lieutenant General Blackman.  I would like to just open with a few comments.  I don't have a prepared statement that I'm going to read.  But it is -- the proportion of this disaster is truly historic.  It goes beyond the old adage that you won't believe it until you see it.  And the reason for that is because of the extraordinary area that this disaster covers and the multiple countries.


            But I will tell you that the combined support force and its partners here are making a real difference today, and we make a greater difference out here every day.  We are in fact minimizing the loss of life and mitigating the incredible human suffering that we see across the region.  This has been a unique military operation from that perspective, in that we have been planning, assessing, deploying and executing concurrently.  It would be like, I guess, if you were taking a family vacation and you were trying to pack the car and decide where you were going while you were driving down the road.  But we are being successful in doing just that.


            We are here to assist the governments of Thailand, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and any other countries as necessary in this region in their relief operations.  It has been a team effort, truly.  We are working hand in hand with the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) from USAID.  We are working with the U.N. -- both of those as witnessed here by the other two gentlemen we have on this end.  We are coordinating every day with a number of military forces here in the region that are providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief as well.  We are de-conflicting as necessary and synchronizing our operations where we can in this relief effort.


            I'd like to take this opportunity to thank the Royal Thai government for the use of Utapao, where we are right now.  This is a regional hub and it's also the site of our command and control for Combined Support Force 536.  Without this, without this capability here in this location, I don't think that we would be anywhere near as successful as we have been today.  I think our response was a rapid one.  It was rapid because of the expeditionary forces and forward based forces here in the region.


            And as I said earlier, we are here to minimize any more loss of life, to mitigate human suffering wherever possible, and in doing so we hope that when we are able to complete that that the people of this region better understand the generosity and compassion of the American people, and that in doing so we can improve relations and improve our opportunities here in the region for continued peace and stability.


            And that's all I have.


            MR. WHITMAN:  Well thank you, General.  We'll open it up for some questions here.


            Q     General, Charlie Aldinger with Reuters.  Can you hear me?


            GEN. BLACKMAN:  Yes, I can.


            Q     I'm trying to get some updated figures on how many U.S. troops and ships you have there now, and if you have any figures -- any updated casualty figures; are they growing?


            GEN. BLACKMAN:  I can give you a general idea on the number of forces that we have in the region.  In the theater itself we have close to 13,000.  I don't have, frankly, with me any updated casualty figures.  But we have 17 U.S. Navy ships and one U.S. Coast Guard cutter operating in the region, and about 90 U.S. aircraft.




            MR. WHITMAN:  Very good.


            Q     General, Julian Barnes, U.S. News.  In the next five days, what would you say the sort of military priorities are in terms of relief efforts?  So what sorts of new things or different things will you be prioritizing in that time frame?


            GEN. BLACKMAN:  We are at a point, I believe, where we are able now to see the top of the crisis curve.  And so our priority here over the next, say, 96 hours is to determine what our sustained requirement will be for disaster relief in each of the three countries where we're focusing our effort.  And each one of the countries day by day develops unique requirements that we are assessing in the best way to fulfill them in a sustained way, if you will, on the back side of that curve.


            Does that answer your question?


            Q     Yeah.  I wanted to follow up.  You know, I understand -- earlier this week we were told that there were mobile modular hospitals that were ready to deploy from Japan and other places, and that there were assessment teams looking at where they could best be used.  Are we any closer to actually deploying those, figuring out what countries could use them?


            GEN. BLACKMAN:  We are, and the thing that we are really working at right now is determining what the medical requirement is.  Let me take northern Sumatra for an example.  We are looking at, first, the growing medical capability, the improved medical capability of Indonesia itself there in northern Sumatra.  And with my partners here from OFDA and the U.N., we are looking at the growing capability being provided by international organizations and nongovernmental organizations so that we can determine what, if any, shortfalls there will be that we can provide through military medical capabilities of various nations who will make or who have offered that kind of contribution.


            What we are finding is that we are able to make a significant contribution in an ancillary way.  For example, the hospital in Banda Aceh there in northern Sumatra yesterday, I believe, was without power because of a broken generator.  And we were able to bring in a team of mechanics and technicians from the Abraham Lincoln, and they actually overnight fabricated a part in their machine shop and brought that generator back online.  So we have found that by providing things like fresh water, medical evacuation by helicopter to a medical facility and out of that medical facility to relieve these -- you know, say a casualty flow to relieve any bottleneck, if you will, that we are providing a great deal to the existing medical system of the host nation as well as that being provided by IOs and NGOs.


            Q     Sir, Donna Miles, American Forces Press Service.  I'm curious about what's the biggest challenge -- challenges you're facing right now and how they differ from those that you faced in the very first days of this operation?


            GEN. BLACKMAN:  Let me kind of start with the second part of that question.  Our initial challenges were that we had really very little information on the extent of the disaster and the unique requirements of each of the three primary countries that we're conducting relief operations in right now.  And we overcame that by building what we call a starter kit of capability: a rotary-wing aircraft for distribution; water-making, water-production, storage and distribution capability; some general engineering capability to clear roads and facilitate the relief effort by the host nation or other agencies.  The challenge now, as I said before, that we're better able to see where the top of the curve is and better determine what the requirements in each of these unique locations, is to now match up our existing capabilities here in each of those three countries with the requirements.  And we learn more and more every day, and I suspect that we will for some time now.  So if there is a challenge, it's just very rapidly matching our capabilities to the requirements.




            Q     Hi.  General, this is Lisa Burgess of Stars and Stripes. When you talk about sustained operations, can you give us some sense of what type of time frame you're looking at?  Is it the next week or so or into the next couple of weeks?  And then I have a quick follow- up question.


            GEN. BLACKMAN:  We will conduct operations here as long as it takes in order to accomplish our mission of minimizing further loss of life and mitigating human suffering.  We will not stay any longer than necessary.  And we will sort of -- I wouldn't say in some formal agreement, but we will determine when that time is that we can begin to reduce U.S. military capabilities in coordination, in consultation with OFDA and with the U.N.  When we believe that they are in a position to accept -- I wouldn't say responsibility per se, but when they're in a position to sustain the necessary relief for the affected people, then I will make the recommendation that we begin to incrementally reduce our capability.  And that will be different, as it looks to me right now, in each of the three countries of Thailand, Indonesia and Sri Lanka.




            Q     So would it be fair to say it's a little bit too early to really get a sense of how long that might be?


            GEN. BLACKMAN:  Absolutely.  Absolutely.  I mean, I probably should have said that.  You mentioned a week; that would be premature at this point in time.


            Q     And my follow-up question was this – we have been hearing a lot from the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who are helping with this operation of the horror and how difficult it is for them to see the levels of destruction.  Are you making any plans to offer some sort of mental health assistance for these people later down the road?


            GEN. BLACKMAN:  Yes, and earlier than later, as you suggest.  We have counseling capabilities that is available to the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines now, and we will have that kind of a capability available to them through this operation and upon redeployment.




            Q     General, this is Al Pessin from Voice of America.  Two questions, if I might; the first, a follow-up.


            When you were talking about the Air Force hospitals and you said you've passed the peak of the crisis, you're not sure apparently if you're going to need the Air Force hospitals, the local capabilities are growing.  So why have we dispatched the Mercy, which won't even get there for about 30 days?


            And secondly, this story you told about the hospital generator was quite interesting.  I wonder if you could share with us a couple of other things either that you've experienced yourself or stories that chopper crews and others might have told you about a couple of specific things that they did that stick out in your mind.


            GEN. BLACKMAN:  Well, first of all, I think what I said was we can see the top of the curve.  I didn't say we have passed it.  But I think we have a better idea today than we did even three or four days ago where the top of the curve will be.


            If I can answer the first question, the USNS Mercy brings some unique capabilities.  It carries supplies that are provided by a variety of nongovernmental organizations.  Depending on the requirements, she can be staffed with various capabilities, including nongovernmental organizations and people with significant medical capability that can provide relief in other forms other than medical. She can treat a variety of patients from the young to the elderly.


            As you suggest, it will take about 30 days to reach the Indian Ocean here.  I know -- don't, you know, hold me to this, but I know that one of the longer-term concerns beyond the actual dealing with the trauma-type casualties that we're seeing today are longer-term concerns with disease and epidemics.  And the Mercy could be staffed uniquely to deal with preventive medicine, and if necessary with disease-type problems that could develop here in the future.


            Q     If I can just follow up, you said other than medical relief from the Mercy.  What are you referring to?


            GEN. BLACKMAN:  It can just -- the Mercy -- I believe that the Mercy was used, for example, after 9/11 in New York.  Somebody here corrected me; it was the Comfort, very -- you know, the same class ship.  The Comfort was berthed in New York and was used by relief workers as a sanctuary, if you will; where they could get a little bit of rest, a hot shower, a hot meal, and then get back to their duties. It can be uniquely loaded with a variety of supplies and capabilities.


            And I would also like to add that, as a ship, it allows us to sea base our medical capabilities.  It allows us to not put a significant footprint and presence on the ground in, for example, northern Sumatra.  There are great benefits associated with sea basing our medical capability.




            Q     Thank you, General.  I have asked for a couple of the stories that stick out in your mind about things that the troops have done.


            GEN. BLACKMAN:  CSG, our Combined Support Group commander in Sri Lanka.  We don't necessarily have to focus on pounds and gallons and numbers all the time.  They had 14 Marines there today with shovels who were digging a trench on the beach to drain a four-kilometer-long stagnant pool of water that had been captured inland after the tsunami receded.  In their efforts to drain that pool with hand shovels, they were joined by Sri Lankans who weighed in and helped them do that. And we have found that just manual labor type cleanup efforts of debris, where we have started those kinds of operations, we have had Sri Lankans in particular just join the effort and begin a teamwork- like effort to begin to recover from this disaster.


            MR. WHITMAN:  Let's go to the back and then up to Carl.


            Q     Hi, General.  This is Yui with NHK, Japan Broadcasting Corporation.  You said that you are coordinating with other countries' military forces.  Could you tell us as to how you are coordinating with other countries, for instance such as Japanese troops?


            GEN. BLACKMAN:  Yes.  And let me say that we have had an assessment team from Japan in here for the last few days.  In fact, I believe it was yesterday they were up in northern Sumatra.  That team is back now.  And I believe it's either tonight or tomorrow we will see the initial contribution from Japan of a C-130.  That C-130 right now is planned to make a daily logistics run with relief supplies from here at Utapao to Medan in northern Sumatra, on to Banda Aceh, back to Medan, perhaps with any medevac casualties that are being brought out of Banda Aceh to the better-equipped hospitals in Medan, and then back here and do it again the next day.  So we, in particular, are very thankful for the contribution from the Japanese Self Defense Force.




            Q     General, good morning.  It's Carl Rochelle with NBC News. I wonder if there are things that you need that you don't have in terms of personnel, in terms of ships or aircraft or supplies, or of there's anything that you need that you feel would be necessary that you don't have.  And could you elaborate a little?


            GEN. BLACKMAN:  Beyond what is flowing right now, I am very comfortable with what we have either here that we are employing, or those capabilities that are on the way.  I've got to tell you, there was absolutely nothing that we developed as a requirement in the early stages of planning, which began in the early morning hours of the 27th of December, the day after this tragedy, that have not been, you know, brought forward in a very, very rapid manner.  I mean, it has almost been -- after 34 and a half years wearing this Marine uniform, I have been extraordinarily impressed by the incredible speed with which we have moved capabilities into this region.




            Q     General, this is Yui again.  Are many U.S. forces in the Pacific Command now, you know, involved in this humanitarian assistance?  How much are you concerned about having -- this operation will affect the operation in Iraq and also the deterrence against North Korea?


            GEN. BLACKMAN:  I heard the piece about deterrence with North Korea, but could you say again kind of the sentence or two before that?


            Q     How much are you concerned about the operation in Iraq?


            GEN. BLACKMAN:  (Inaudible) -- if you're speaking to me as the commanding general of the 3 Marine Expeditionary Force that is forward-based on the Western Pacific, I will say that 3 MEF has made a contribution to the effort in Iraq.  We are dealing with this crisis very effectively, with a team that, you know, was not deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.  We -- our command and control in particular, which we have brought here to Utapao, is intact, and we're very capable of providing command and control.

            I can't speak for deterrence with regard to North Korea, but I will say this.  We are still in this region.  We are not far away.  So if that should come to pass, I imagine that the Pacific Command will have all the resources necessary to continue to deter any aggression on the Korean peninsula.  Over.


            MR. WHITMAN:  General, I think we have one more here.  Let's do one more.


            Q     General, do you have an estimate of how many injured or ill people you are evacuating in the rural areas of Indonesia to Banda Aceh or other metropolitan areas?  How many people are being evacuated per day on the helicopters?


            GEN. BLACKMAN:  I don't right off the top of my head.  It generally -- it's generally in the 50 to 60 per day.  I don't have the total numbers right in front of me, nor an actual number from today, for example, or the last 24 hours, but I would say on an average day, you know, 40, 50, 60, something in that range.  And that's from areas and isolated pockets of displaced persons along the western coast of Sumatra, from Banda Aceh south about 120 miles or so to that -- to the point where we see the effects of the tsunami terminated.


            Q     And how much of problems of the hospital facilities in Banda Aceh -- power problems, other problems -- affected your ability to evacuate those people?  Have you -- how much -- I know there was some pause at one point this week, but how much have your evacuations been interrupted by those problems?


            GEN. BLACKMAN:  They have not been.  In fact, you know, any occasional shortfall in the capability of the hospital there is, in fact, alleviated by our ability to rapidly move patients to the greater medical capability available in Medan.  Again, don't hold me to this, but I believe Medan is the largest city in Sumatra and does, in fact, have a greater medical capability.


            If I can go back and just mention one thing, this kind of operation is not entirely unique.  We -- 3MEF, it was Joint Task Force 535 -- conducted a humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operation in the Philippines here in the first couple of weeks of December.  And certainly not anywhere near on the scale of the operation we're conducting right now, but we gained some -- we learned some very valuable lessons from that, and so -- I think I'm really going back to the question that the reporter from NHK asked.  Although this is on a far greater scale, it is not entirely unusual to conduct humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations here in this region.


            And now I'd like to say that the two gentlemen I have with me here from the U.N. and from OFDA are feeling bad that nobody asked them a question.  So if I could, if anybody has any questions for either of these gentlemen, please ask.


            Q     This is Al Pessin from VOA.  I would be interested to know exactly, so to speak, who's in charge.  General, is this your operation or are you supporting their operation, or how does that chain of command or coordination work?


            GEN. BLACKMAN:  We are working hand in hand.   There is a military aspect to the response by the United States and there is a civilian response headed up by the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance from USAID.  We are working hand in hand here at this headquarters and with the same level of cooperation in each of the Combined Support Groups in Indonesia, here in Thailand, in Phuket and also in Sri Lanka.


            Q     I'd like to briefly ask the gentleman from the U.N.:  There have been some dire not so much predictions but warnings from U.N. officials that the casualties could grow astronomically from disease and sickness.   Have you seen any sign at all that this is beginning? And if not, have your worries been somewhat mitigated by the growing relief efforts?


            MR. PUTNAM-CRAMER:  Thank you for the question.  The answer -- and then I'll add a few words which I would have maybe said as an introduction -- the answer is yes, we have some indications of the prevalence of disease, and yes the rapidity and effectiveness of our collective response is mitigating that.


            Maybe I can say a few more general things, starting with to repeat, perhaps, what General Blackman said in terms of the scale of this particular catastrophe.  It is indeed unprecedented and calls for an unprecedented response.  All possible means -- as I'm sure you're aware also from the media and from the various situation reports that are being issued from all sides -- all means are being utilized and mobilized; that is, from the U.N. system, the Red Cross movement, NGOs, private contributors and, indeed, the military.


            Now, as you are also aware, I'm sure, the appeal, the flash appeal for the forthcoming six months was launched yesterday by the secretary-general of the United Nations in Jakarta, calling for some $977 million for affected countries in terms of relief and early rehabilitation activities.  And from the pledges of which we are aware to date, it is not -- repeat, not the funds that are lacking.  And the means of the quickest possible and most effective delivery is the question here, and I think this is where the cooperation that we are having with the military, both here in Utapao and in outlying areas in the countries concerned, is optimalizing our combined efforts.


            The resources that the military are able to provide -- and I think aircraft, fixed wing and rotary wing have been mentioned, as well as road repair equipment, heavy-duty generators, and others -- are extremely valuable and we are extremely grateful for these being put at our disposal.


            We have placed here with the general's headquarters in Utapao civil military coordination officers who are assisting in the effective tasking of the assets in question.


            The U.S. military and others are assisting us, basically, to assist the effective countries who have the ultimate responsibility in terms of response to the catastrophe at hand.


            Some say that we collectively do not have the means to attend effectively to all requirements, all needs.  I say we certainly do, provided our efforts our complementary and well-coordinated.  And I think Jan Egeland, the under-secretary-general for Humanitarian Affairs, who is my boss, as well as Margareta Wahlstrom, who has been appointed by the secretary-general as coordinator for this region at this time, would hold the same view.


            Finally, perhaps, I'd like to compliment General Blackman and his staff, both here at Utapao and with the combined support groups under his command, on the very positive and supportive mindset that characterizes our collaboration to date.




            Q     Just a brief follow-up.   Could you be a bit more specific on what type of disease and where?


            MR. PUTNAM-CRAMER:  I could not be extremely specific.  I would suggest that question be put to the -- both the UNICEF and the World Health Organization representatives that are here in Bangkok, and of course are also in the countries affected.  But I think the urgency with which they are calling for relief to be delivered is proof of the fact that some of the initial fears, as voiced last week by the World Health Organization, may start to materialize.


            Q     Okay.  Thank you.


            MR. WHITMAN:  Okay.  Gentlemen, we have gone over the time that -- I know that you allocated for this, so I'll bring it to a close.  I do want to thank all of you for taking the time to be with us this morning and wish you all the best.  It's tough work.  The efforts of the task force and everybody there has been phenomenal, and we hope that you'll come and share what's been going on there sometime next week with us again.


            GEN. BLACKMAN:  We certainly will.  This is General Blackman for this great team here.  Out. 




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