U.S. Military, Partners Making 'Real Difference' in Indian Ocean
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 7, 2005 The U.S. military and its partners are "making a real difference" in the tsunami-stricken Indian Ocean region and are increasing their reach every day, the commander of Combined Support Force 536 told Pentagon reporters today.
"We are, in fact, minimizing the loss of life and mitigating the incredible human suffering that we see across the region," said Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Robert R. Blackman, speaking via an audio link from Utapao, Thailand.
Blackman said the expeditionary nature and forward basing of U.S. air and sea forces enabled the U.S. military to respond to the crisis in the Indian Ocean with "incredible speed."
The Thai government's offer to allow use of its military base at Utapao as an operating base was also a key factor in the relief effort's success. "Without this capability here in this location, I don't think that we would be anywhere near as successful as we have been today," Blackman said.
He said the U.S. mission is to assist the governments of Thailand, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and other countries that request help with their relief operations. "It has been a team effort, truly," he said.
Toward that end, U.S. forces are working hand-in-hand with the U.S. Agency for International Development's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance and the United Nations.
Gerhard Putnam-Cramer, U.N. chief of emergency services, said the U.S. military has been "very valuable" to the operation by contributing much-needed assets such as rotary- and fixed-wing aircraft, heavy-duty generators, and road repair equipment.
He praised Blackman and Combined Support Force 536 for their "positive and supportive mindset" and contributions that he said are "optimizing our combined resources."
Blackman said it's too soon to tell how long the estimated 13,000 U.S. troops in the region will be needed. "We're at the point where we're able to see the top of the crisis curve," he said. "We haven't passed it yet, but we have a better idea of where it will be."
In addition to the air, sea and land forces, Blackman said the United States currently has 17 Navy ships, one Coast Guard cutter, and about 90 aircraft in the region.
USNS Mercy, a hospital ship, is en route to the region and will offer unique capabilities to the relief effort, he said. In addition to providing a sea- based platform for patient care, the ship could also be used as a temporary sanctuary for relief workers, as its sister ship, USNS Comfort, did in New York City following the World Trade Center attack in 2001.
Blackman said he's "very comfortable" with the level of support the U.S. military is providing the support force and said there's "absolutely nothing" planners have asked for that's not on the ground or on the way.
The support force's top priority during the next 96 hours will be "to determine what the sustained requirement will be" in different locations throughout the region, what assets are already committed to them, and what's still needed.
He said growing involvement by nongovernmental and international organizations and improved capabilities within the affected countries is helping meet much of the need, particularly in the medical arena.
"We're finding that we're able to make significant contributions in an ancillary way," he said. The U.S. military is also providing fresh water, conducting medical evacuations and offering other services that augment those already being provided, he said.
Blackman noted one example in which mechanics and technicians from USS Abraham Lincoln were quickly able to fabricate a part for a broken generator in their ship machine shop and restore power to a hospital in Banda Aceh, in northern Sumatra.
While unable to predict when the U.S. military will be able to withdraw some of its resources from the region, Blackman said the forces will remain "as long as it takes to accomplish our mission of minimizing further loss of life and mitigating human suffering.
"We will not stay any longer than necessary," he said, adding that the decision to curtail U.S. military involvement will be made in concert with the United Nations and USAID.
Meanwhile, Blackman said Combined Support Force 536 remains focused on the challenges at hand, working 24/7 to help in any way possible.
He said the destruction left by the tsunami defies words. "The proportion of this disaster is truly historic," he said. "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."
The dire need left by this disaster has driven a unique military effort that has operators planning, assessing, deploying and executing -- all at the same time, Blackman said.
"It would be like 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," he said. "But we are being successful and doing just that."