Teamwork Brings Blend of Skills, Mutual Commitment to Continuing Promise
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
PORT AU PRINCE, Haiti, April 16, 2009 From a distance, the U.S. Southern Command-sponsored Continuing Promise humanitarian assistance effort underway here looks every bit like a military mission.
U.S. Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Edwin Alvarez, left, and Canadian army Sgt. Robert Roy move a Haitian patient at a clinic set up in the Cite Soleil district of Port au Prince, Haiti, during Continuing Promise 2009, April 15, 2009. Canadian Air Force photo by Maj. Marguerite Dodds-Lepinski
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
It’s based around the massive hospital ship USNS Comfort, a supertanker-turned-Military Sealift Command hospital ship initially outfitted in the late 1980s to treat mass casualties. Three-quarters of its crew is military, mostly medical personnel.
But Navy Capt. Robert G. Lineberry Jr., Comfort’s commodore and tactical commander, is quick to note that Continuing Promise is far more than a military mission.
“This is a combined team,” he said of the vessel’s 850-member crew. “It’s joint. It’s international. It’s coalition. It’s U.S. Public Health Service.
“In addition,” Lineberry said, “we’ve teamed up with many international organizations to help one another do the things that we all want and need to do in the Americas.”
This mix brings more capabilities to the four-month mission through Latin America and the Caribbean, participants say, than any of their groups could accomplish alone.
Meanwhile, Lineberry said, they’re learning from one another so they’re better prepared to work together if needed to respond to a natural disaster or other humanitarian crisis.
“One thing an operation like this does – because it’s joint, multinational and interagency – is make you appreciate what other people are doing or trying to do,” said Navy Capt. Tim Hardy, who oversees the medical clinic set up in Port au Prince’s Cite Soleil district.
“It helps you realize that there is more than one way to do something.”
“This is fabulous,” said Dutch air force reserve Maj. Tom Visser, a doctor who volunteered for the mission. “We all do the same things, but in slightly different ways. But for all of us, it’s about taking care of patients the best we can.”
Canadian army Sgt. Robert Roy said he, too, welcomed the chance to apply his skills as a physician’s assistant to help needy Haitians. “I volunteer for everything – especially the chance to participate in a humanitarian mission as big as this one,” he said.
With 31 years in the Canadian army under his belt, Roy is no stranger to combined operations. He said he’s seen steady improvement in how they’re conducted after participating in combined missions in Bosnia, Africa and, most recently, Afghanistan as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.
Here during Continuing Promise 2009, Roy said, those lessons are being reinforced as joint, international, interagency and nongovernmental partners work together to provide medical, dental, veterinary and engineering support for the Haitian people.
“This is a really great partnership,” Roy said. “We’re learning different techniques, combining them, and learning together as we work toward a common goal. And when we go home, we will take all this experience with us.”
The learning process extends beyond the medical clinics and the USNS Comfort hospital ship. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Danny Nocon, for example, works alongside the Haitian police to provide crowd control at onshore medical sites.
“The Haitian local police do things a little differently,” Nocon said. “The cultural exchange is the real value. What we are really learning is that we are different – but not really different. We all share common values.”
French army Warrant Officer Galmaidie David, a nurse stationed in Martinique, called working side by side with partner nations’ militaries particularly fulfilling, knowing that they are delivering care to people in the region who desperately need it.
Few aid groups have the organizational and logistical capabilities that the military can bring to carry out a mission of this scope, he said.
“It’s wonderful to have this,” he said of Continuing Promise. “The most important thing is that so many nations all want to work together and do something for these countries.”
Mivoyel Jean Paul, a policy program analyst with the U.S. Public Health Service, said he’s seen the same cooperative spirit both aboard ship and at medical clinics ashore. “What I notice is a willingness of everyone to help,” he said. “We all have a common goal.”
A native of Haiti, Jean Paul said he’s been pleased – perhaps even a bit surprised – at the willingness of the Continuing Comfort leadership to listen to his suggestions, and often act on them.
“It impresses me,” he said. “And it’s a great thing, because with good leadership and cooperation, we can do anything.”