USS Kearsarge Demonstrates Navy ‘Soft Power’ Capabilities
By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 29, 2008 In what could serve as the model for the Navy’s “soft power” efforts in the future, the USS Kearsarge has cruised the Atlantic for the past few months delivering disaster relief and humanitarian aid to a handful of countries in that region.
The fact that it is a 40-ton U.S. military expeditionary strike group flagship delivering supplies and medical, dental and veterinary care makes no difference to those on the receiving end in these impoverished countries, the mission commander for Kearsarge's humanitarian and civic assistance mission said.
“The host nation doesn't care what the number is, or the color [of the ship],” said Navy Capt. Frank Ponds, commander of the mission dubbed “Continuing Promise.” “All [it] cares about is that this ship is bringing a critical capability by sea, air and shore to their citizens. And you know what? That's all we care about. We are no threat to any host nation down here, because we are here on a humanitarian assistance mission.”
Speaking to a group of bloggers yesterday via conference call from the ship, Ponds called the Kearsarge “the perfect platform” for carrying out the mission. In fact, the same features that are designed into the ship that allow it to deliver critical military supplies, troops and equipment ashore are the same capabilities that make it right for the job of delivering humanitarian aid and disaster relief, he said.
In its combat mission, the 844-foot Kearsarge can transport and land ashore troops, tanks, trucks, artillery, ammunition and other supplies necessary to support an assault.
And the ship’s medical capabilities are second only to the USNS hospital ships Comfort and Mercy, Ponds said. The Kearsarge can support up to 600 patients while still providing routine care to crewmembers and embarked troops. Its facilities include four main and two emergency operating rooms, four dental operating rooms, X-ray facilities, a blood bank, laboratories and intensive-care ward facilities.
Ponds said the primary purpose of the mission is to reinforce security, stability and prosperity within the region, but that it also provides valuable training for the ship’s crew.
The crew is made up of members of all branches of service, Ponds said. The mission allows development of interagency and international relationships, as the crew works closely with other U.S. federal agencies and international aid groups. Ponds said the crew works “shoulder to shoulder and scalpel to scalpel” with physicians and experts from the Netherlands, Canada, Brazil and France.
“So this has been a true interagency, joint, multinational operation delivering much-needed services … in the Central America, South America and Caribbean region,” Ponds said.
The ship is now docked off the shores of Trinidad and Tobago and has about another five weeks left before it heads to its home port in Norfolk, Va.
In the first three countries Kearsarge visited -- Nicaragua, Colombia and the Dominican Republic -- the ship’s medical teams screened more than 107,000 patients, treating more than 34,000 patients, and dispensed 64,000 pharmaceuticals, Ponds said. Doctors have performed 104 medical procedures on the ship, and they likely will perform another 60 before it leaves Trinidad and Tobago.
The crew also delivered thousands of pairs of glasses, and its veterinary teams treated more than 4,000 animals, he said.
The ship was pulled off its stop in Colombia three days early to respond to disaster relief requests by Haiti that felt the brunt of hurricanes Hannah, Ike and Gustav. In 18 days, the ship’s crew delivered 3.3 million pounds of relief supplies and more than 30,000 gallons of water. Medical teams provided assessments of the storm-ravaged areas, and the civil engineers assessed critical infrastructure needed to deliver aid by roads, Ponds said.
“What we did in Haiti was no small feat, only because we were able to do a sea-based mission with a minimum footprint ashore, delivering some much-needed supplies to the folks in Haiti,” he said. “We took to Haiti an invaluable asset in the form of lift, aviation and service lift, to those remote areas that could not be normally accessible by the roadways.”
Ponds said the military staff has learned a lot from this mission and has adjusted its operations with each lesson.
“It's been about humbling ourselves to deliver what they think that they need, not what we think that they need, and working with them to deliver these critical capabilities,” Ponds said.
Many times, as the crews work to rebuild schools, clinics and other infrastructure, they find themselves partnering more, and taking the lead less, depending on the capabilities of the host nation.
“We've come away with some valuable lessons learned,” Ponds said. “And we've used those lessons in stride to adjust our mission as we have gone along.”
The Kearsarge is the second Navy amphibious ship to deploy to Latin America and the Caribbean this year for the "Continuing Promise" mission. The USS Boxer wrapped up the first phase in June after visiting three countries.