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News Briefing with Rear Adm. Michael LeFever

Presenters: Commander, U.S. Disaster Assistance Center, Rear Adm. Michael LeFever
November 10, 2005 11:00 AM EDT
News Briefing with Rear Adm. Michael LeFever

(Note:  The admiral appears via teleconference from Islamabad, Pakistan.) 


            BRYAN WHITMAN (deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Public Affairs):  Admiral LeFever, this is Bryan Whitman at the Pentagon. Can you hear me? 


            ADM. LEFEVER:  Bryan, loud and clear.  How are you? 


            MR. WHITMAN:  Excellent.  Very good, admiral. 


            Well thank you again for joining us this morning here, afternoon your time -- evening, I guess, your time now.   


            With us today, as the Pentagon press corps here knows I think, is Rear Admiral Mike LeFever.  He's the commander of the U.S. Disaster Assistance Center in Islamabad, Pakistan.  And he's back with us again to provide an operational update on our earthquake relief operations. This is a broad United States government humanitarian assistance effort.  The United States military provided some initial assistance by virtue of its presence in the region, and continues to support Pakistan's most urgent needs for resources and personnel to support the affected areas.  


            He is joining us by telephone.  That's why you do not see his picture there.  And I think he has a few things that he'd like to update you on, and then we'll get into a few questions. 


            Admiral, with that, let me turn it over to you. 


            ADM. LEFEVER:  Bryan, thanks so much. 


            Good morning.  Again, I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you all.  It's been about two weeks since the last time I spoke to you, and about one month since we arrived in Pakistan to provide the support for the recovery efforts here.  I'd like to start by giving you, as Bryan said, kind of a brief update on our operations in support of the Pakistanis. 


            Since we last spoke, we've continued to work closely with the Pakistanis to bring in all types of capabilities required to meet those affected by this tragedy.  It was determined fairly early that the capabilities required heavy airlift capabilities, medical, and engineering, and we've responded with that.  After the last few weeks, we've made great strides in these areas.   


            We have built up our rotary wing capability to its current state of 24 helicopters, and these helicopters have flown over 1,300 sorties and transporting more than 5.6 million pounds of humanitarian aid, and have transported about 3,400 casualties back to hospitals, and probably even just as impressive, nearly over 8,000 passengers, and those passengers would include bringing medical and relief people up to the areas, and more importantly, helping to relocate displaced persons into different areas that the Pakistanis have asked for us to do. 


            Throughout this operation, obviously we've coordinated closely with the Pakistanis to ensure the aid gets out quickly and to the places that they feel it needs to go.   


            The other part of this is our superb ground logistics team, which has off-loaded more than 9.8 million pounds of humanitarian aid from strategic lift, as well as civilian and other lift that comes into the airport, and they've been pitching in on everything. 


            Another much-needed capability that we've established is our medical capability.  The 212 MASH unit from Europe convoyed up to Muzaffarabad, and that was just very close to the epicenter of the earthquake, and it's been operational since the 25th of October.  And   since that time, they've treated already more than 1,300 patients, and performed over 125 surgeries, to include everything from routine treatment to amputations. 


            With many of the Pakistani hospitals, as you know, damaged severely during the earthquake, this MASH was able to take on the increased workload from the earthquake casualties, as well as the routine medical care.  And we're also working with the World Health Organization in preventive medicine with the tent camps that are going up. 


            We're going to extend these capabilities even more.  We are going to put another hospital up in the Shinkiari region, with the deployment of the 3rd Marine Logistics Group surgical unit from Japan.  


            Shinkiari is about 15 kilometers southwest of Balakot, up in the Northwest Frontier providence (sic).  Again, this city was probably 90 percent leveled with their structures.   So it is an important area up in this valley, and a value -- valley where we expect some of the folks during the harsh winters to come down into prepared tent cities there, and that we think the unit is going to be very busy. 


            The unit is compromised of roughly about 200 personnel -- 10 doctors, six nurses, 40 hospital corpsmen and other support personnel. 


            This detachment is, of course, the 3rd Battalion's Bravo Surgical Company, and its 60-bed facility is capable of providing surgery, primary, dental and in-patient services for a wide range of injuries and illnesses.  And this we expect to be on line as early as this coming Tuesday. 


            And finally, we brought in our engineers, the Navy Seabees, from Navy Mobile Construction Battalion 74.  This battalion originally is out of Gulfport, Mississippi.  Some of these young sailors had lost some of their homes in the devastation from Hurricane Katrina, and they've been on deployment in Guam, and they feel a special kin (sic) to helping rebuild what they see here. 


            And they're operating out of Muzaffarabad, and they're working on projects identified by the Pakistanis, which include debris removal, construction of facilities such as schools and community centers.  And in fact this last Tuesday they played a really neat role in opening -- reopening the girls' school in Muzaffarabad with a temporary facility. And it was well carried, I'm sure, in the press and pictures.  I know it was a big hit up here, to get normalcy back to that life.   


            This project, of course, was coordinated with the Pakistanis, our USAID and UNICEF, and of course is significant in bringing the quake victims back in -- on the road to recovery.   


            So we've been pretty busy, and I'm extremely proud of, of course, all the young men and women, the great airmen, sailors, soldiers and Marines that are working here in Pakistan, now about 975 strong, and we expect to get up to about 1,200 here in the next couple days.   


            But there's still much work to be done, and it'll take the entire international community, working with the Pakistanis, to get through this terrible disaster. 


            Now before I take questions, I'm sure, you know, that probably -- answer some of them, an update on a previous incident that I'm sure most of you heard about.   


            Early in the month, we issued a statement concerning what was reported then to be an RPG firing at one of our helicopters.  We said that we, along with our Pakistanis, would look into the incident. 


            We've completed a review of the details, and in fact, there was road-clearing work being done in that area where they were blowing boulders and splitting boulders in that area.  And of course, as you know, at no time did we ever suspend our humanitarian mission because of this incident.  We are comparable, and we are flying everywhere with our security provided by the Pakistanis and have since made several hundred humanitarian deliveries to the Chakothi area where this occurred.  And in fact, we went back and met with the town folks in part of the review.  They asked for certain supplies; in the next days we came back with tents and blankets and food that they asked for, and it was a huge hit as well. 


            Now, I'm happy to take any questions. 


            MR. WHITMAN:  Go ahead, Will. 


            Q     This is -- admiral, this is Will Dunham with Reuters.  Just want to clarify on that investigation, so you are saying that you have determined that there was not a rocket-propelled grenade fired at the helicopter? 


            ADM. LEFEVER:  It's hard to say, and the evidence is inconclusive of what we really had.  And so in our view, it was -- you know, we continued to fly.  We didn't think it was that kind of event when we reviewed the facts, and so we're continuing to fly everywhere. 


            Q     Just to follow up, so you are satisfied that the helicopters did not come under fire? 


            ADM. LEFEVER:  Yeah, well, I would probably say that, and like I said, the evidence was probably a little bit inconclusive.  There was explosions going on.  We had an observer that thought he saw something, and at the end of the day, there wasn't anything definite there that we could hold our hat on and continue to fly everywhere and anywhere that's required. 


            Q     Admiral, it's Lolita Baldor with the Associated Press.  The president is sending a group of business people over there to meet with you all and I guess assess the needs, and he's encouraging businesses to, I guess, be more generous and donate more money for the effort.  Can you assess the unmet need there?  It sounds as though there is greater unmet need then perhaps we originally thought. 


            ADM. LEFEVER:  That's a great question.  We're really looking forward to hosting the CEOs.  We have a good day planned for them to  take them up to the area.  One, to see what the great service folks here in the area, and then take them up into Muzaffarabad and show them what the MASH unit's doing, the Seabees, what type of devastation that is in the area, that they can make that assessment. 


            I think it'll be good because it is -- it's going to be a long-term reconstruction, rebuilding phase here in Pakistan.  And any of that interest in -- and they're -- as you know, the U.S. is the key, and so they'll watch very closely.  If the U.S. responds favorably, I think the rest of the world will respond favorably as well with providing aid for the devastation that they'll surely see when they come in the country. 


            Q     Admiral, just to follow up, is there some great unmet need that perhaps the military is going to try to either increase, either personnel or supplies to the area, or is there a lack funding to do some of this? 


            ADM. LEFEVER:  I know you've seen different articles with the U.N. about funding and funding needs.  The -- and we're doing a complete assessment with all the NGOs -- U.N., Pakistani government, Pakistani military to ascertaining where the gaps are from all the stuff that has been brought in and the stuff that continues to flow in from around the world.   


            I'm -- I feel pretty optimistic about what is going on and the progress that we're making, the identification of where needs are being met, getting stocks of food in different areas where there's roads cut off.  The Pakistani government has done a marvelous job in getting some of the lines of communication open, so they're getting a lot of the roads open for -- to be able to deliver them with trucks and four-wheel drive vehicles.  There is one area that's of concern, and that's in the Neelam Valley.  That was right at the epicenter. This Neelam Valley road -- it was completely devastated.  They think in about three or four weeks that they're going to have a -- at least a mule trail connecting that road into an area that we think there's probably about 170,000 folks that may be cut off because of the road network, that will be open with the mule thing.  But that's also where we've been concentrating a lot of our helicopter flights, since the trucks are being able to deliver out.  So we're operating out of forward operating bases to get into those areas that are still cut off. 


            I'm feeling optimistic that the international organizations and NGOs are tackling the problem, and we're going to be able to meet it. But it is something that still requires a big challenge, and people to continue their interest.  We've been watching -- you know, at the airport, as in anything, you know, kind of a big buildup, and now we're seeing international aid and so forth starting to drop off.  And we still need to get those key items out, I think, in the next 30 days -- the tents, the blankets, the heaters, the winterized tents -- for those folks that are going to be up in the mountain.  Right now the weather is -- we're starting to see snow come down to about the 8,000- foot level, and many of these locations are above 8,000 feet, and will soon, in the next two months, be down to as low as 3,000 feet.  So we're (in) a race against time in making sure we get the tents and blankets and heaters to those areas, setting up camps -- the U.N. is and the government of Pakistan.  


            And then the next priorities, of course, is building up the reserves of supplies.  They already had an existing elaborate systems of logistic heads that they would come down -- that people would come down and get their supplies for the winter and go back up into their homes and regions. And so we're making sure those are replenished and resupplied. 


            But all this progress, like I said, I'm very optimistic that we're on the right track, but still there is a lot to do, and that's just in the relief phase.  And we're already -- and it's a very elaborate -- as the relief goes on, we're also into the reconstruction and rebuilding phase, which will be a long-term project. 


            Q     Sir, this is Jim Garamone with American Forces Press Service.  Under what kind of conditions are the U.S. personnel living in Pakistan, especially the Seabees and the young men and women who are up with the MASH unit? 


            ADM. LEFEVER:  Jim, as you know, we come self-sustainable and expeditionary.  And we have been -- all the folks that are out at the main hub at Chaklala or the Islamabad International Airport, there's a couple hundred folks in tents out there, heated tents with environmental control, and a command center that's set up there, 24/7 watch.  And we're in 16-man tents.  And we get delivered one hot meal a day, and MREs the next couple of days.  We do have porta-potties, and we do have -- we've incorporated shower and head facilities that are in place.  


            Our Army and Navy aviators, that their helicopters are out at Qasim Air Base.  They're living kind of in a tent city in a hangar, but their quality of life is improving each day.  I was out there, inspected the other day.  We now have kitchens on line, showers, head facilities, and so forth, in the appropriate numbers for the footprint that we have out there. 


            For the MASH and Seabees, they're co-located at what used to be the parliamentary grounds; very well protected by the Pakistan Muzaffarabad police, and a Ranger battalion that's up there that works very closely with us.  But they're in tents up there.  We have ROWPU units making water for showers, and so forth.  And we have the kitchens up and running at the MASH hospital.  And those, you know, two large footprints of about 400 folks are, you know, living together, eating together, and co-habing together up in that region out of tents and areas.  And that's at about the 3,500 foot level, so at night it does get a little cool.  Of course they have the environmental-conditioned tents.   


            But they're eager in the mission.  Morale is sky high because of the type of mission they're doing and the thousands of lives they're saving.  And it's -- you know, I couldn't be prouder of the force here on the ground.   


            MR. WHITMAN:  Jeff? 


            Q     Admiral, Jeff Schogol with Stars and Stripes.  You talked about getting tents and heaters to the people in need as a race against time.  Can you say how many people are in need and how many people you can realistically get to before it gets cold with your air assets? 


            ADM. LEFEVER:  Jeff, good question.  Right now -- I don't have the numbers in front of me right now, but I know there was a significant number, depending on how you read, in the millions of people that were displaced out of their homes.  There are people with some of their homes standing but with severe cracks, and they have -- they're essentially living in tents or make -- to make self -- shelters near their home.   


            And so we think we're pretty good about getting out and reaching out to the different areas.  And for those folks that don't have it, the government of Pakistan, along with the U.N. and UNHCR, are, you know, designing tent cities for people that are displaced, to provide them winterized comfort in camp facilities, to be able to live there temporarily as the winter goes through and then to locate back up in their home area. 


            I think we've reached pretty good across the spectrum, and we continually -- with the Pakistan military that's out in the hills on these mule trails and about, getting assessments.  We're getting phone calls in from people that have said either they need food or tents and shelters.  And those become a priority in the next day's schedule for the helo drops.  And I think we're doing quite well, and I think the number's probably fairly small of the people that we probably haven't reached yet or don't know about.   


            Q     Sir, Gordon Lubold from Army Times.  One clarification and quick question.  Did you say you have U.S. forces in 10 different locations, 10 base camps? 


            ADM. LEFEVER:  No, I'm sorry if -- we're probably at -- we're right now probably going to be at about five different locations.  The main command center at Chaklala Airport on the land there right by Islamabad International Airport.  About five kilometers away at Qasim Army Aviation Base is where some of our -- or all of our aviator -- rotary wing aviators are.   


            We have the Seabees and MASH unit up in Muzaffarabad.  We have a small contingent out at Muzaffarabad airfield, where we've set up a rapid refueling point, to extend range deeper in those areas that we couldn't reach before.  And then the next location will be this town of Shinkiari, which is southwest of Balakot.  And there we'll also have the -- about 200 folks of the 3rd Medical Logistics Group, as well as a small quartermaster unit to run also a forward refueling facility there at that base.   


            Q     Good.  And I'm sorry if I missed it earlier, but how many total non-U.S. forces are there working alongside you?  And from where -- and where are they from? 


            ADM. LEFEVER:  Gordon, that's a tough one.  It's quite a coalition footprint here from all the multinationals.  You know, NATO's here.  The Japanese are here.  The Australians are coming in. I saw South American helicopters.  I saw Luxembourg -- there are -- and there's over 230-some different nongovernment organizations, along with the main footprints that we know, the U.N. UNICEF, USAID and DART teams, that are out and about.  So I would -- boy, I would -- it would be hard to say how many folks are really here in the effort. 


            Q     You say you'll be getting to about 1,200 U.S. forces here soon.  But would -- do you have like an equivalent number from other countries, or double, or twice that, or less than that? 


            ADM. LEFEVER:  Yeah, Gordon, I really don't track that and don't have a number for you.  But our count is today about 975.  And with the medical folks flowing in in the next two days and the quartermasters for the refueling point, we will get close to about 1,200. 


            MR. WHITMAN:  Al? 


            Q    Admiral, it's Al Pessin from Voice of America.  Early on, there were suggestions that the health situation would get worse as time went on before it got better, presumably in the very long term. Have you seen indications of increasing health problems in recent weeks? 


            ADM. LEFEVER:  Al, we've been out working with the World Health Organization and working with those folks with our preventive medicine guys from the MASH units, and we're going out and surveying the camps. There's pockets of different elements, but nothing that I would say that went in the epidemic stage at any facility whatsoever.  They seem to have a fairly good handle on it.  They're quick to respond.  And if there's different groups -- I know we went out and helped inoculate -- there were meningitis cases in a couple of the camps that we saw, and we're helping with sanitation.  In fact, our Seabees are building over 1,000 latrines for UNICEF to be used at these camps and digging latrine ditches, because as you know, to build up sanitation is a big issue, and purification of water. 


            Q      Another question.  Admiral, do you have a time frame?  You said it's going to be a long effort.  Do you have a time frame for how long your particular task force will be there and how long you see having the sort of thousand-plus level of U.S. participation? 


            ADM. LEFEVER:  I'd say right now -- and I didn't want to put a timeline on it.  As you know, we're kind of the 911 guys, and I see the NGOs and USAID and other aid organizations kind of taking them well into the rebuilding and reconstruction phase.  What I'd probably look at is probably event-based with the government of Pakistan as, you know, measures that we'd see, you know, we'd watch the loading of the hospital, or maybe the weather will impact maybe some of the projects we're doing for the construction equipment.  I think the airlift will go on for some time, obviously, to make sure we have enough food in the different regions, especially if the roads aren't open to be able to provide that. 


            So I haven't really focused on a time rather than the events.  As we've said before, we're here to support the government of Pakistan in their time of need, and we'll be here as they see fit and as we can help provide that service. 


            MR. WHITMAN:  Will?   


            Q    Admiral, Will Dunham with Reuters again.  Can I just try to follow up on what Al was getting at?  I mean, can you say are you going to be there for a period of weeks more or months more, without getting any more specific than that?  And I've got one other thing after you answer that. 


            ADM. LEFEVER:  Will, I probably -- again, it's hard to say because, you know, we're still beating the weather right now, the weather's still  been fairly good for flying.  There was a region up north today that we couldn't get into because of weather.  And I think it's something that we'll just have to -- we continually assess to make the determination of making sure we match our capability and capacity with what's really required.  And that, I think, is the big determination. 


            Q     You mentioned that you're going to be reaching about 1,200 in the coming days.  Is that going to be the peak of the U.S. contribution, or do you anticipate it getting larger than that? 


            ADM. LEFEVER:  Will, I'd say right now I see that probably as a peak.  But again, if we in our assessment and at the request of the government of Pakistan see another niche that we can fill with our wonderful capabilities out of our military, that will be, you know, put through the system and see if we could respond to it.  But I kind of sense that probably that 1,200's probably about tops for now.  We seem to be matching the needs across the board, and we'll watch that closely. 


            MR. WHITMAN:  We've got time for about one more, and then if you've got anything you want to say before we leave you, Admiral. 


            Lolita, why don't you take the last one here. 


            Q     Admiral, it's Lolita Baldor with AP again.  If I can just take a another sort of stab at this question.  Do you expect -- at least would it be safe to say that considering the weather and the needs there, that you would at least be there through the winter? 


            ADM. LEFEVER:  I think the weather will have a big factor on it. Again, I'd see, you know, each of the -- kind of the big muscle movers are again capabilities.  So I think it's going to depend on that.  For example, you know, one of the things might be is that the area we're working in, you know, during the cold months, to do the same type of work takes twice as much time with those heavy-lift machinery engineering equipment, and the diesels don't work real well in the cold weather.  That might be an opportunity to draw down some of those forces or to help with the snow removal and do stuff like that.   


            Hospital, as the hospitals and the different medical care units, watching the loading across the entire city and seeing how that balances may determine some things.  Up in the hospital right now we have some  American-Pakistani medical doctors that are serving alongside with us, and they're a big help, came from the United States and are working side by side, know the language and are helping quite a bit.   


            And then we continue to monitor, like, for helicopters, how many do we really need to be able to provide the goods, since the United States is providing a great deal with the heavy lift.  And different   countries come in.  I know the Germans just came in four 53s, which are great heavy-lift helicopters, the Brits are here for 30 days with their CH-47s.  And so it's one of those things that we'll continually monitor and assess and reevaluate the numbers.  When they're no longer needed, I'd like to get those folks home, but if we need to stay and support our friends, then I think we'll stay and support our friends. 


            We're making incredible strides and obviously helping people save lives and also, as you can tell in the press, I think we're really making a great impact strategically, changing the shapes and minds of folks that used to regard U.S. probably in not so good a light, but really see the great nature of what the U.S. can provide in this humanitarian aid and what we're providing.  The president very vocally as well as others, meetings that I go to, very proud and very thankful of what the United States has brought. 


            It was kind of cute.  One of the toys that seems to be a big hit is a little replica of a CH-47 helicopter.  That seems to be a big hit, and I'm sure that probably scene wouldn't have played out probably as -- a month and a half ago.  And so I think we are doing great by the thousands of lives we're saving each day, and then I think the thousands we're impressing is what the U.S. is all about and its great ability to contribute in time of need for people around the world. 


            MR. WHITMAN:  Well, admiral, we've reached the end of our time -- our allocated time for this.  And I just want to, on behalf of everybody here, thank you again for taking the time to give us this update and to address some of the questions that we had. 


            ADM. LEFEVER:  Thanks again, Bryan.  Hopefully we answered it all.  Again, appreciate the opportunity.  And at any time for updates or whatever, we're happy -- I'm happy to brag about the great airmen, soldiers, Marines and sailors that are out here operating in interesting conditions, but having such a huge impact on both humanitarian assistance, saving lives, as well as what I think global war on terrorism. 


            MR. WHITMAN:  Well, thank you and best wishes. 


            ADM. LEFEVER:  Thank you, Bryan.



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