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Officials Cite Military’s Domestic Response Role

By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 28, 2009 – If not for the logistical capability and other unique assets the U.S. military has at its disposal during times of crises, the American population would suffer significantly, federal health officials said.

U.S. Public Health Service Rear Adm. (Dr.) W. Craig Vanderwagen, former assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services, underscored the critical role the military plays in responding to catastrophic events domestically.

“In terms of domestic response capability, the most significant logistical capability in this country for response is in the hands of our military personnel,” Vanderwagen said in a telephone interview this week. “And if we do not have their engagement in planning and execution, the civilian population would suffer significantly.”

Vanderwagen, a physician who is set to retire next month, said part of the military’s role in humanitarian and disaster aid is in planning for and responding to potential events.

“What the military has to bring to the fight is a huge and capable logistics experience,” he said. “The civilian environment does not have the kind of reserves – the tools and people – that allow for extensive and timely logistical response to events.”

In a separate interview, Dr. Kevin Yeskey, deputy assistant secretary for preparedness and response and director of the Office of Preparedness and Emergency Operations at HHS, echoed Vanderwagen’s conviction.

“We all know [catastrophic events] are going to happen,” he said. “You can think of scenarios where there’s just a devastating earthquake, a devastating hurricane, a devastating chemical release or accident, or something where there’s just an overwhelming number of casualties.

“If we don’t plan for them and we don’t exercise for them, and we don’t understand what’s going to happen at the local, state and federal levels and how those responses are going to take, and make sure they’re integrated,” he continued, “we’re not going to have an efficient response. We’re not going to have an effective response, and there’s going to be lost lives unnecessarily.”

Yeskey said the point of thorough planning and exercises is to work out as many of the bugs as possible and to anticipate potential surprises where possible.

“So when the event happens, we’re ready to go, and it doesn’t take us a long time to get out of the starting blocks and respond,” he said in a phone interview this week.

Vanderwagen said the Department of Homeland Security and its components have laid out roughly 15 scenarios – from anthrax exposure to a nuclear attack or accident to hurricanes – on which responders base their preparation.

“What has increasingly begun to occur and is becoming a routine part of business is joint planning between [U.S. Northern Command] and the civilian elements,” he said, referring to the military command responsible for anticipating and coordinating responses to domestic events.

Vanderwagen praised Air Force Gen. Victor E. Renuart Jr., the commander of Northcom, for his level of engagement and similar efforts by Renuart’s Northcom predecessor, Navy Adm. Timothy J. Keating.

“Renuart has provided great support from the assets that they have within Northcom to do planning for those various scenarios and identify those specific operational and tactical missions where the [Defense Department] elements would be most useful,” he said. Such assets, Vanderwagen said, include not only logistic support, but also public health personnel and medical personnel.

“The role of the Northcom as the relevant command here has been an expanding role, and one that’s been extraordinarily important in filling gaps that the civilian population just can’t deal with in a timely manner,” he said.

Contact Author

Air Force Gen. Victor E. Renuart Jr.
U.S. Public Health Service Rear Adm. (Dr.) W. Craig Vanderwagen

Related Sites:
U.S. Northern Command
Department of Health and Human Services

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