PaCom Commander Accompanies Burmese Relief Mission, Appeals to Allow More Aid
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 13, 2008 The top U.S. officer in the Pacific accompanied the first U.S. relief flight into Burma yesterday, delivering not only desperately needed supplies but also personal appeals to the ruling junta and a letter asking the prime minister to allow more help.
Navy Adm. Timothy J. Keating briefs media on the supplies being dropped from a C-130 Hercules to victims of Cyclone Nargis in Burma May 12 at Utapao Air Base, Thailand. The C-130 is the first aircraft being flown into the country since permission was granted to assist with relief efforts, which included five pallets of water, mosquito netting and blankets. Admiral Keating is the commander of U.S. Pacific Command from Camp H. M. Smith, Hawaii. U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Sonya Croston
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Navy Adm. Timothy J. Keating, chief of U.S. Pacific Command, is no stranger to disaster response. He was at the helm at U.S. Northern Command when he mobilized U.S. military support during Hurricane Katrina. At PaCom, he coordinated the U.S. response after a fierce tropical storm lambasted Bangladesh in November.
So after a devastating May 2 cyclone decimated much of Burma’s Irrawaddy River delta, Keating knew what Pacific Command could do to help, if the Burmese government only gave the green light.
So Keating took his appeal in person, joining an Air Force C-130 Hercules aircrew yesterday for the first U.S. military relief flight from Utapao Thai Royal Navy air base, Thailand, to Rangoon International Airport, Burma. Henrietta Force, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, joined Keating during the mission.
The flight, with 28,000 pounds of cargo, was the first of three relief flights Burma has approved to date. The Marine Corps flew two additional C-130 flights today, delivering an additional 44,650 pounds of water, blankets, mosquito netting and plastic sheeting.
As the airmen helped Burmese troops and civilian volunteers offload the first load of cargo -- 8,300 bottles of water, two pallets of mosquito nets and a pallet of blankets – Keating met yesterday for more than an hour with Burmese officials to make his case.
Characterizing the session as “friendly and gracious,” Keating said he told the delegation what kind of help the United States has to offer. “We made as rational and passionate a plea to get Burma’s permission to begin relief operations,” he said during a phone interview from Bangkok with American Forces Press Service.
Keating described some of the assets on standby: six C-130 aircraft at a staging area at Utapao air base, about a half-dozen CH-53 Super Stallion heavy-lift helicopters and several CH-46 Sea Knight medium-lift helicopters. Additional air assets are in a waiting mode with Joint Task Force Caring Response, headed by Marine Lt. Gen. John Goodman, commander of Marine Forces Pacific.
In addition, USS Essex, USS Harpers Ferry, USS Mustin and USS Juneau arrived in the Bay of Bengal early this morning. Aboard them are 10 more CH-46s, four to six CH-53s and more than 14,000 5-gallon plastic bladders filled with fresh water.
Keating said they’re also carrying what he described as a key capability: “about 1,000 to 2,000 Marines and sailors who are all prepared to go ashore, or at least provide relief efforts ashore when the Burmese will allow us.”
Before returning to Thailand with the aircrew, Keating left a personal note to be delivered to the Burmese prime minister, reiterating his verbal appeal and promising to keep all support low-profile.
“We will leave no fingerprints,” Keating said he wrote to the prime minister, who ultimately must authorize any additional relief missions. “We will not use any Burmese fuel. We will not take any Burmese food or water. When the Marines and the Air Force personnel leave, the Burmese will not know we were there. We will be entirely self-sufficient. We can bring our own command and control. We will help, (and) the minute we are no longer desired or required, we will leave.”
Despite his efforts, Keating said, he regretted that he wasn’t able to get the acceptances he had come seeking -- at least not yet. It could be as long as two weeks before the prime minister decides whether to accept more help, the admiral said the embassy staff told him.
“Our diplomatic personnel there in Burma cautioned us against high expectations,” Keating said. “They say that, historically, the Burmese are very slow to give approval. All decisions of this magnitude have to go to the prime minister. He and he alone retains the authority to make them.”
Keating expressed frustration that military assets and capability are sitting idle as the casualty numbers from the deadly cyclone that hit Burma on May 2 continue to mount.
“We have a disaster of near-incomprehensible magnitude,” he said. Initial reports from United Nations and World Food Bank program workers who have been permitted into Burma indicate that conditions are becoming “very, very grim.”
“We all know that each day that goes by, the situation is likely to degrade dramatically from catastrophic to worse,” Keating said. “So it is frustrating, but it is worse than that. It is a catastrophe of epic proportions, in my view. And we are right there. We are ready to help, and we can’t get permission.”
Before returning to his headquarters at Camp H.M. Smith, Hawaii, Keating said he planned visits in Thailand to thank Thai military leaders, as well as U.N. and World Food Bank workers for their support for the Burmese mission.
Keating said he planned to tell the nongovernmental organization staffs that the United States will help support their work in Burma “in any way that we can.”
The Burmese government is likely to be more receptive to NGOs than military forces providing support, he conceded. “That’s fair enough. We just want to get the aid there and the supplies there,” Keating said. “It doesn’t matter to us nearly so much what kind of flag is on the side of the aid. We just want it to get to the folks who need it.”
The bright spot of the yesterday’s mission, he said, was watching the airmen roll up their sleeves and pitch in to help the Burmese, who formed a human chain at the back of the aircraft to pass relief supplies to a waiting 2-and-a-half ton truck.
They “have a very clear sense that this is a drop in the bucket [of what’s needed], but at least it’s a drop they are providing,” Keating said. “They were hustling. It was pretty hot, and they were perspiring mightily as they were offloading goods yesterday afternoon.”
“These are America’s finest ambassadors, in my humble opinion,” he said.
“This is not necessarily what they joined the service to do. Their primary mission is to defend the United States and our allies in the Pacific. And these guys are ready to do that on a moment’s notice,” he said. “But when the bell rings, they want to help out anyone and everyone who needs it.”
Marine Capt. Dax McLendon, a C-130 pilot who delivered 24,500 pounds of aid during the first of two relief flights today, said it felt good to be able to lend a hand in Burma.
The crew, from Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 152, based in Okinawa, Japan, had been in the region for the Cobra Gold 2008 exercise when it got diverted for humanitarian assistance for Burma. “The whole crew was happy that we could help out,” McLendon said.
The delivery went like clockwork, he said. Bad weather initially hampered visibility of conditions on the ground, but during the decent into Rangoon, McLendon and the crew saw evidence of extensive flooding.
Once on the ground, the Burmese greeted them with open arms as they worked side by side with the Marines offloading the plane, he said.
“I’ve done humanitarian relief before, and it always feels good when you land with the supplies people need,” he said. “Especially when they are the ones offloading your plane, you can see that they are happy you are there. They were real receptive to us and very happy and all smiling and shaking our hands. They wanted to take pictures with us, get around the plane and kind of check us out.”
Marine Capt. Michael Scott, another pilot on the flight, recalled how much easier the offloading would have been if the Burmese would allow the United States to bring in offloading equipment, rather than offloading everything by hand. “You can tell that they can use our help,” he said. “We have the ability to bring in materials to do that for them, but that just has to be worked out between our two governments.”
The offloading was completed in 47 minutes flat, and exactly an hour and a half after touching down, the C-130 was headed back to Thailand. Now McLendon, Scott and their fellow aircrews remain on standby, wondering if they’ll be called on to fly additional relief missions.
“We don’t know yet,” McLendon said. “But we’re definitely here to support if the Burmese government asks for us.”