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DoD News Briefing with Vice Adm. Crowder and Capt. Kearns from the USNS Mercy

Presenters: Commander, U.S. Seventh Fleet Vice Adm. Doug Crowder and Commander, Pacific Partnership 2008 Capt. William Kearns
June 27, 2008
                (Note: Vice Admiral Crowder and Captain Kearns appear via teleconference from the USNS Mercy.) 
 
                BRYAN WHITMAN (deputy assistant secretary of Defense, Public Affairs): Thank you for joining us this morning for the Pentagon Press Corps here. Let me introduce you to who we have here for those of you who may not know these individuals.   
 
                It is our pleasure today to have Vice Admiral Doug Crowder, who is the commander of U.S. Seventh Fleet. And joining him is Captain William Kearns, who is the commander of the Pacific Partnership 2008. And they are coming to us live from USNS Mercy, which is currently located in Nha Trang -- if I said that correctly --- Vietnam. And they have been deployed -- the Mercy has been deployed since May 1st as part of this Pacific Partnership 2008. And thus far they have been to the Philippines and now they are visiting Vietnam and will eventually move on to East Timor as well as other places that I'll let them talk to you about. 
 
                So again, thank you very much, gentlemen, for joining us and taking some time to tell us about this mission that you're on. And I know that you have some remarks that you'd like to make before we get into some questions. So I'll turn it over to you. 
 
                VICE ADM. CROWDER: Great, Bryan. Good morning, everyone. Thank you for taking the time to talk with us today. Again, I'm Vice Admiral Doug Crowder, the Seventh Fleet commander, along with Captain Bill Kearns, who's the commander of the Mercy Pacific Partnership mission.   
 
                The hospital ship the USNS Mercy is currently deployed on a four- month humanitarian mission to the western Pacific and Southeast Asia. Mercy is wrapping up a 10-day visit here in Vietnam. Thus far, the team has seen over 8,000 patients at the medical civic action program site, conducting more than 200 surgeries on board. 
 
                I'll let Captain Kearns speak to the specifics of what the Pacific Partnership team has accomplished during this second phase of the mission. 
 
                The first phase, as Bryan mentioned, was conducted in the Republic of the Philippines earlier this month, where Mercy teams saw more than 26,000 patients and performed more than 300 surgeries. 
 
                And they will visit three more countries after Vietnam: Timor Leste, Papua New Guinea, and the Federated States of Micronesia.   
 
                We know this has been a remarkable week for the development of bilateral relationships between the United States and Vietnam. As you know, earlier this week the prime minister of Vietnam was in Washington meeting with our president and other senior government officials. Yesterday while in Haiphong, I had the opportunity to meet with Vice Admiral Hien, Vietnam's naval commander. We had good discussions of basic operations of our navies. And earlier in the week, I met with senior officials at the Ministry of Health to discuss the Mercy mission that we're going to tell you about. These engagements are all good examples of the growing relationship between our two countries, who share a common interest of maintaining peace and regional stability.   
 
                Today I had the opportunity to visit two different sites ashore, where the Pacific Partnership teams from the United States Navy Hospital Ship Mercy had been working. One was a medical and dental civic assistance project, and the other one was an engineering project.   
 
                Being in the Pentagon, I know most of you are rather familiar with the U.S. Navy's maritime strategy. Missions like Mercy Pacific Partnership are cornerstones to that maritime strategy. Building relationships and trust, understanding each other, these are the underpinnings to ensuring security and stability in Asia-Pacific. That's why this mission is so very important.   
 
                With that, let me turn it over to Captain Kearns to talk about specifics of the mission, and then we'd be happy to take your questions. 
 
                CAPT. KEARNS: Good morning. My name is Bill Kearns. I'm the mission commander for Pacific Partnership embarked in the hospital ship Mercy. We are nearing the end of a very productive visit to Vietnam, where we have refurbished community clinics, performed surgeries here on board the Mercy, provided temporary clinics ashore for over a thousand people a day, made improvements to an orphanage, and much more.   
 
                But most of all, we have developed superb relationships with our counterparts here in Vietnam. We are working side by side on a daily basis with Vietnamese doctors and nurses in their local hospital, assisting at a children's rehabilitation center with construction improvements, and while we perform these civic assistance projects, we're showing the good will and commitment of the United States in the Asia-Pacific.   
 
                Pacific Partnership in Vietnam has been a success in large measure due to our work not only with Vietnam but with other partner nations who have military personnel embarked on Mercy. They include Australia, Canada, India, Republic of Korea and Singapore. All 52 members of our partner nations worked side by side with their American counterparts, often taking leadership roles at the medical, dental, civic and engineering civic action programs.   
 
                Of course, I couldn't talk about any success in Vietnam or Pacific Partnership without mentioning the role of nongovernmental organizations, such as Operation Smile, the East-West Foundation, the University of California San Diego Pre-Dental Society, and Project HOPE. These volunteers, embarked with us here on the hospital ship, have taken time from their lives to serve this mission here in Vietnam.   
 
                Since our arrival, our medical personnel have treated over 8,000 Vietnamese citizens, 6,000 at medical sites and 2,000 at dental sites throughout the Kai Gwa (ph) province. We've conducted over 200 surgeries onboard the hospital ship Mercy, and these surgeries include 90 Operation Smile cases, which are generally cleft palate and cleft lip repair surgeries, other plastic surgeries that typically included burn, scar therapy and replacement, ophthalmology surgeries and endoscopy procedures.   
 
                Although our work in Vietnam is nearly complete, we are looking forward to visits in Timor Leste, Papua New Guinea and Federated States of Micronesia in the coming months.   
 
                And that completes my statement, and we're pleased to take any questions. 
 
                MR. WHITMAN: Well, gentlemen, thank you for that overview. And we'll get into a few questions here then.   
 
                Al, we'll start with you.   
 
                Q     Admiral, it's Al Pessin from Voice of America.   
 
                Can you tell us a little more about your meeting with the chief of the Vietnamese navy? Was it a ceremonial call? Or was there substance involved? And specifically did you discuss any increase in U.S.-Vietnamese military or naval engagement, through exercises and other activities?   
 
                VICE ADM. CROWDER:  Al, it was a very substantive call. It started off as rather ceremonial. But we spent nearly 50 minutes in direct dialogue. He was very interested in increasing our engagement, particularly in the search-and-rescue realm. And so we talked about that.    
 
                He was also very interested in navigation and how we could help in that area. As you may know, we had one of our navigational survey ships do a call and a subject matter exchange back in 2007. So he was very interested in that.   
 
                And of course on the medical side, there were a number of, over 20 of, their medical folks involved with this partnership down here, on the mission that we're doing now.   
 
                So I thought it was a great call. He was very warm and open. And then we had a great dinner afterwards.   
 
                Q     Can you tell me, Admiral, did you make any specific plans for further engagement?   
 
                VICE ADM. CROWDER: Al, again, we didn't strike any specific projects. We just agreed that we would work through our own agencies, our own governments. I made many offers to involve them in some exercises.   
 
                In fact, this very week, they had five of their officers observing one of our bilateral exercises, down in Singapore, as our guest.   
 
                And I asked that they consider a follow-on exercise in the next year or two here as a full-time participant, not just as an observer. 
 
                Q     Can you just say what type of exercise that is? Is it search and rescue or humanitarian or -- what is it? 
 
                VICE ADM. CROWDER: Well, we have a series of exercises with Southeast Asian nations called CARAT, which I believe stands for cooperation and readiness and training exercise. We do it with Singapore, the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia and Thailand every year. And each of those -- and again, there are a series of bilaterals and we plan those in the months ahead of the exercise to try to find those sort of skill sets that we want to practice. So each of those exercises is a little bit different. 
 
                So we would probably be looking at the search and rescue as far as an exercise, a first exercise with the Vietnamese and then ramp up, like we do with some of the other countries -- we do CARAT with Singapore, for example, and we're doing anti-submarine warfare and air defense sort of exercises with them. So we could start at a level such as search and rescue and work our way up, which we've done with many of the countries up here. 
 
                MR. WHITMAN: Let's go to Courtney and then we'll go to John. 
 
                Q     Hi, this is Courtney Kube from NBC News. Captain Kearns, this might be a better question for you. Can you talk a little bit more about your time in the Philippines? There was reportedly a U.S. helicopter fired upon while you where there. Did you have any security concerns? Did that change your security status, alter any of your operations? Can you give us sort of an idea of what happened there? 
 
                CAPT. KEARNS: Yes, I'd be glad to. Mercy was anchored off the coast of Mindanao in the southern Philippines, where we were working side-by-side with Filipino doctors and the armed forces of the Philippines. And it was a great partnership that we had going on there.   
 
                We were there, off of Mindanao, for 14 days. And we were using our helicopters to transport our medical personnel to remote locations. And so the -- one of the days that the helicopter returned from an operation -- it returned to our flight deck, shut down in a routine manner, and there was no in-flight emergency.   
 
                We did discover a -- what we believe is a bullet hole in the tail section of the helicopter. And so what we did is we took a -- we took about a 24-hour break in our helicopter operations, we continued the rest of our humanitarian, civic assistance operations, but we -- working with the armed forces, Philippines local officials, we took a look at what might have been the cause. And within 24 hours -- it was inconclusive what the cause was, but within 24 hours we were back up fully operating. 
 
                Q     Admiral, it's Jonathan Karl with ABC News. Has there been any discussion of, while you're in the region, going to Burma, any formal offers been made? And have you at least looked into what you would be able to provide in Burma if that were to happen? 
 
                VICE. ADM. CROWDER: Jon, as you know, we had four of our ships deployed just south of Burma as the terrible typhoon hit almost two months ago. And we made, through Pacific Command, Admiral Keating, 15 requests of the Burmese government to allow us to provide this assistance from the sea with three large amphibious ships as well as one of our destroyers. And we were rebuffed all 15 times.   
 
                We remained there for nearly a month, and were just flat told that we weren't going to be able to provide what we thought was much- needed relief, humanitarian assistance from the sea, similar to the sort of humanitarian assistance we have done many, many times out here, including the 2004 tsunami relief operation. 
 
                So I think it's safe to say that we have no further plans to operate in that area, unless, of course, the junta there decides to change their mind and accept our offer. 
 
                MR. WHITMAN: Jeff? We'll just work our way across here. 
 
                Q     Admiral, Jeff with Stars and Stripes.   
 
                Did you say you extended a formal invitation to the Vietnamese to participate in a bilateral exercise?   
 
                VICE ADM. CROWDER: No. I said -- I asked them to think about whether they're ready for that step, and that we thought that they were. Again they have participated the last two years in this carrot exercise as observers. And so I asked their chief of navy to see if they weren't to participate next year as full-fledged participants. So it's kind of in their court to come back to us on that.   
 
                Q     Did you get any kind of idea of a timeline, time frame of when you can expect an answer?   
 
                VICE ADM. CROWDER: Well, you know, not really. I know they have to work it through their system. And quite frankly the exercise is held every summer out here. And we're about halfway through the exercise period this summer.   
 
                So we'd be looking at the summer of 2009. And so if they do want to participate, we'd probably need to know at least six months prior, in order to do all the planning that would be necessary.   
 
                Q     Gentlemen, this is David Wood from the Baltimore Sun. This question is for Captain Kearns.   
 
                After you pull up anchor and leave, is there any lasting impact from your visit to Vietnam?   
 
                CAPT. KEARNS: I believe there is. And the lasting impact is, part of it is, in the people-to-people exchanges that we've had, the interaction with the people of the port where we're operating.   
 
                I believe that the infrastructure improvements, that we're making at the clinics, will have a lasting effect or at the orphanages or at the children's rehabilitation center. The training that our doctors and nurses are providing, both at the local hospitals and here in our hospital facilities, that improves the skills of their medical personnel.   
 
                And I might add that we've learned a few things from them along the way, too. And so the -- another great example is we have biomedical equipment technicians in hospitals conducting repairs of equipment that might just be sitting in a pile, broken. And so they're able to restore them to operation, and it increases the capacity of that local hospital or clinic. 
 
                So I think those are some good examples which, to me, mean an enduring impact. 
 
                Q     Admiral -- (name and affiliation inaudible). The Vietnamese government over the years has expressed concern about the lingering effect Agent Orange back from the war years. Have you had any discussions or have any people you've seen there in their medical participation had any suffering from lasting effects of Agent Orange? 
 
                VICE ADM. CROWDER: Let me answer the first part of your question first. It has not been a topic of discussion in my meetings over the last four days that I have been here. I do know from my meetings at the U.S. embassy that there are other agencies in the government that are working this issue, but it is not a topic of discussion between us and any of the Vietnamese interlocutors that we have been in contact with. 
 
                Now, the second part of the question, whether we have seen any who -- sort of the results of Agent Orange in the medical civic action programs that we've done, I'm going to have to pass that on to Captain Kearns. I have no knowledge of that, however. 
 
                CAPT. KEARNS: I'm not aware of any of our medical personnel coming across people that, you know, that may have had that exposure.  
 
                MR. WHITMAN: Luis, we'll go to you. 
 
                Q     Gentlemen, it's Luis Martinez with ABC News.   
 
                Can I ask you how this particular province or this area was selected for your arrival, for your personnel to treat the local population? Was this a Vietnamese request? And if so, why did they choose this particular area and your ship to bring the personnel and treatment needed there? 
 
                CAPT. KEARNS: Yes. Our U.S. embassies work closely with governments to determine where the ship should go, where the ship can help the most, where our capabilities can have the most effect. One of the -- being a ship, of course, one of our limitations is needing to -- just needing to get the ship anchored close to shore so that we can move people. So there are practical considerations also.   
 
                But it's -- we've been planning this mission for many months, and we have a lot of experience now in this type of mission since tsunami relief, Mercy's deployment in 2006, a Pacific Partnership 2007 mission. And so the embassies, the host nations, are getting pretty familiar with this capability, and they're able to help us identify where can we have the best effect and the best use of our time. 
 
                MR. WHITMAN: Julian. 
 
                Q     Gentlemen, Julian Barnes from the Los Angeles Times. I'm wondering if, in the next stops, East Timor, Micronesia, et cetera, if you're going to -- you anticipate seeing different health issues in those locations. Are you going to be -- do you expect to be doing similar kinds of surgery, similar kinds of treatment, or is there some different issues in those stops? 
 
                CAPT. KEARNS: Each country Mercy visits -- we're visiting five countries this summer -- each has their unique circumstances and conditions. We have advance teams that go 30 days before our arrival. They're in-country and they're looking at that. And so they're working on a daily basis with local health officials, trying to identify where are the best place for us to put the clinics, what are the surgeries that can be performed.   
 
                For example, Operation Smile, before our arrival in Vietnam, had a fairly extensive screening process to identify children that would benefit from cleft palate and cleft lip repair. So much of the work was done in advance of Mercy's arrival. 
 
                And so when we anchored in Nha Trang, we were able to get right to work, with Operation Smile's surgeons here on the ship.   
 
                So I can't offer you any specific examples of how Timor-Leste or Papua New Guinea or Micronesia might be different. But I know they will be. And we count on the local health officials to help us understand that.   
 
                (Cross talk.)   
 
                Q     In some of my past experiences overseas, NGOs have had some concern about dealing with the American military when trying to do their jobs, you know, compromise them. You mentioned early on the number of NGOs, organizations that are working with you on Mercy. And there was similar participation on Mercy's trips last year.   
 
                Do you think there's a difference between their receptivity, when it's a white-hull ship like Mercy rather than a gray-hull or other military vessel?   
 
                CAPT. KEARNS: Let me take that one, if I could.   
 
                You know, I think you're right that that has historically been the case. And quite frankly we in the military have kind of stiff- armed some of the NGOs over the years.   
 
                I think in the tsunami relief operation in 2004, we found ourselves in a partnership that neither one of us wanted to back away from, because it was a powerful partnership.   
 
                The NGOs had the medical capabilities and the supplies. And the military had the ability to get those people and those supplies downrange, where all the roads were washed out.   
 
                And I think by working together through that tsunami relief operation, for those couple months that we did it, we learned that we could trust each other and that we'd help each other, and that the sum of our two capabilities produced a better whole.   
 
                And so we have made it a point in the Navy of inviting NGOs to all of these Pacific Partnership missions that we've done since then, 2006. They were with us in 2007 on the gray hull just as they with us there in Aceh province in 2004. 
 
                I've just spent a couple hours off with many of the NGOs here on board, talking with them. And I would tell you, to a one, they couldn't be more pleased with the partnerships that they cemented with the military here. And the feeling is mutual.  
 
                This is team that's made up of NGOs, partner nations and U.S. military as well as Vietnamese doctors. And I think that we're all dedicated to ensure that the U.S. military and the NGOs are working closely together in the future. 
 
                MR. WHITMAN: Well, Admiral, Captain, we have reached the end of the time that we've allocated for this. And we know that you're very busy and we want to be respectful of your time. But before I bring it to a close, let me just turn it back to you one last time to see if you have any final comments that you'd like to make. 
 
                VICE ADM. CROWDER: Thank you, Bryan. We're just wrapping up by Khanh Hoa. How fortunate I've been to be able to spend the last four days here in Vietnam and the last couple of days here actually seeing what great work our forces have done out in the field and the smiles on the face of the mothers who are bringing their children in. The dental facilities and work that Operation Smile and others are doing out there is just tremendous, treating some folks, as one doctor told me, who had probably never been to the dentist in their lives. And today over 1,500 folks were seen at the dental clinic. 
 
                And so I guess my parting words to you is I'm all proud of this entire medical team. And I'm sure that each and every one of you are, as well. 
 
                Bill? 
 
                CAPT. KEARNS: Thank you, Admiral.  
 
                I would just want to highlight the importance of the partnership, developing it now doing proactive humanitarian assistance work.  That partnership really pays off when the disaster occurs and we need to come together and we need to understand each other so that we can get the job done and help people. 
 
                MR. WHITMAN: Well, thank you again for your time and for sharing your experiences with us here. And we wish you the best as this mission continues. 
 
                VICE ADM. CROWDER: Thanks, Bryan. 
 
                CAPT. KEARNS: Thank you.
 
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