DoD News Briefing with Rear Adm Pottenger, Col Stilwell and Cmdr Rabbi from the USS Kearsarge
COL. GARY KECK (director, DOD Press Office): Good morning, everyone. Welcome to the DOD briefing room. I want to welcome, from Bangladesh, Admiral -- Rear Admiral Carol M. Pottenger, who's the commander of Task Force 76; and with her is Colonel Douglas Stilwell, commanding officer of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit; and along with them is Commander Mohammad Fazale Rabbi, and he's the Bangladeshi liaison officer.
We have them with us via VTC from the Kearsarge, and they're just off the coast of Bangladesh. And we welcome them to the Pentagon Briefing Room today.
And with that, ma'am, I'd like to turn it over to you and your compatriots there for any opening comments you'd like to provide.
ADM. POTTENGER: Thanks, Gary. We're glad to have the chance to spend some time with you tonight.
As Gary introduced me, Admiral Carol Pottenger, commander amphibious forces, 7th Fleet. I am aboard Kearsarge, embarked aboard as the commander of the naval forces afloat in support of this humanitarian assistance disaster relief operation. General Ron Bailey, United States Marine Corps, is the overall commander of this operation, and he's ashore in Dhaka. Ron wanted to be out here with us tonight but was unable to join us.
Colonel Stilwell's been introduced; Commander Rabbi. My other commanders out here aboard Kearsarge are Commodore Frank Ponds (sp), with Phibron 8, and, of course, the CO of Mighty Kearsarge, Captain Gregorski.
I'll take your question in a moment. First I would like to express all of our condolences to the Bangladeshi people for the loss of life and the suffering that has been a result of the tropical storm Sidr.
The Navy and Marine Corps team aboard Kearsarge are really thrilled to be able to offer our assistance. We're here at the request of the government of Bangladesh and in support of USAID efforts. And we just want to do whatever we can to help those who are in need.
With that, I'll turn it over to you for your questions.
COL. KECK: Okay, thank you much, ma'am. Let's go ahead and get started.
Q Admiral, this is Al Pessin from Voice of America. Can you give us the latest statistics on the number of sorties, the type and quantity of supplies, medical personnel and so on?
ADM. POTTENGER: Al, I certainly can. I've got some statistics ready for you.
We arrived Thursday night, Thanksgiving night, and started delivering water immediately on Friday, and we've been delivering water and food, blankets, clothing, shelter, medical aid pretty much since that time. We've delivered over 12,000 gallons of water to date, over 73,000 pounds of the aid materials that I mentioned. Our docks and medics ashore have seen several hundred cases, over 600 cases as of today, and we've also had the opportunity to transport some USAID and NGO observers to some of the remote places to make assessments on the ground. And it's worked very, very well. We've been hand in hand with the Bangladeshi military delivering -- their guidance under their direction to the sites that they deem the aid needs to be transported to.
Q And a --
COL. KECK: Go ahead, Al, a follow-up?
Q And a follow-up for Commander Rabbi. Can you tell us what you need the U.S. Navy and Marines to do, and what has been the impact of the work that they've been doing since Thursday night?
CMDR. RABBI: Thank you very much.
First of all, I would like to express my sincere thanks to the United States government for coming to answer our request as possible, and they have come to here -- come here to the Bay of Bengal for assisting us in release and rehabilitation program. As of now we have been flying sorties from a place called Barisal the remotely affected areas, and we are also transporting water and other items that you heard from the admiral.
COL. KECK: Go ahead, Al, try again.
Q If I could follow up, Commander, there was some confusion at least over here very far away, where it seemed that the request for assistance did not come for, I guess, about a week after the storm, and it wasn't really clear whether it took your military and your civilian authorities that much time to assess the need and figure out what was required, or whether, perhaps, there was some reluctance to ask for foreign assistance. Can you clarify that aspect of this effort, please?
CMDR. RABBI: Initially the communication that we had were disrupted, so the initial assessment was not that easy for us to find out what actually happened on ground.
So once we could find out what has happened, and that was -- it was beyond our capability to handle out to the others. That's why -- for the quick response to the affected people, we had to call for international assistance in this rehabilitation program.
Q Otto Kreisher with Sea Power Magazine. Admiral, for some reason, the messages coming out of your command and from the U.S. military have emphasized the fact that we're only there temporarily, we'll leave as soon as possible. That's been the nature of all of our humanitarian relief efforts. Why is it being stressed -- the temporary aspect of our activities there being stressed so much at this time?
ADM. POTTENGER: There is a little bit of an echo, but I think that I caught the gist of your question.
The Navy and Marine Corps are here to assist the government of Bangladesh and the military in the emergency and kind of the first phases of relief aid. As Commander Rabbi has pointed out, we bring great capability in terms of helicopter lifts, sealifts. We can operate from the sea from our sea base aboard Kearsarge and provide assistance in transporting the necessary materials to sites that in the first several days after the storm were inaccessible due to the loss of roads, of bridges, of infrastructure.
As we continue to deliver that first wave of necessary aid and the USAID folks get out there and the NGOs get out there -- and there's been a lot of -- a great amount of aid that's come in from other countries as well -- it's really not our mission to be there for the long term. We will stay as long as the government asks us to, as long as they need us to help them with that lift capability. And when they don't need us anymore, then we will complete the mission and depart.
Q Ellen Ratner from Talk Radio News Service. You've said you've seen 600 cases -- medical cases. What are the kinds of problems people are coming to you with? What kinds of cases are you working on?
ADM. POTTENGER: From the feedback from our docs, a lot of the cases have to do with waterborne illnesses, with those types of symptoms that you would expect from pollution of the water sources, from the loss of the wells, all of those things that accompany insufficient fresh water for cooking and for drinking.
There were some trauma cases, some injuries from wind and storm damage, and I think those two categories are probably the predominant types of cases that the teams on the ground have seen.
Q I have a follow-up.
COL. KECK: Okay.
Q Meredith MacKenzie, Talk Radio News Service. Earlier in the week we talked with Admiral Keating, and he said that there were medical facilities aboard the Kearsarge for surgeries. Have you seen or done, performed any surgeries onboard the Kearsarge?
ADM. POTTENGER: I also saw those remarks, and we absolutely do have medical facilities aboard. And as Admiral Keating elaborated, if there were an instance where there was a medical emergency, where the facilities board Kearsarge were better suited than hospital facilities in Bangladesh, we would certainly be ready to transport someone here. That has not occurred to date, and Bangladesh has some very sophisticated medical facilities available, so I don't anticipate that would occur, but certainly if the need arose we would be ready to support that.
COL. KECK: Al.
Q This is Al Pessin again. And I don't know, Admiral, if you or the Colonel had been ashore, but I'd be interested in hearing any stories that your folks are telling you, specific instances, experiences that they've had in either the delivery of supplies or providing these medical services, a couple of anecdotes, if you have them.
ADM. POTTENGER: Absolutely. We've both been ashore. I've been ashore a couple of times. The colonel has, and obviously Commander Rabbi has a lot of insight from the first week or so before he came out here to support us aboard Kearsarge. With all of our deliveries, the helicopter deliveries and the LCAC deliveries that we've made. We've been greeted very warmly. We've been greeted with gratitude and a lot of appreciation from the Bangladeshi who were there to receive that aid.
I did bring one quote in tonight with me that one of our doctors received from a patient that he treated just yesterday. The quote, "In the eyes of my village, you are the face of the world. Your presence here shows us that the world cares." So from my observation, we're doing good things and we are being appreciated, and I think we're hopefully filling the needs of the government of Bangladesh asked us to fill.
I'll pass the mic it to Colonel Stilwell and see if he has something else to add.
COL. STILWELL: As far as an anecdote, I think the one that I've heard that is my favorite, delivering water by way of our Landing Craft Air Cushion or LCAC. We took bulk water in on the LCAC in some of our larger containers, and then filled five-gallon water bladders on scene for distribution, and that took a little bit of time.
A number of my Marines went ashore for this effort and ended up apparently having a rousing soccer game near the village of Dubla Char with the children of the village. I did not hear who won the game, but I was told that a great time was had by all. And I think that's indicative of just the smiles and the open arms and the gratitude that we've been met with ashore, across the board.
Q I also had another question, Admiral. I know that you're on loan from CENTCOM, and I realize there may be some security issues, but can you tell us what you were doing when you were called away to this mission?
ADM. POTTENGER: Certainly. Let me just clarify. I'm actually part of 7th Fleet, part of the Pacific Command. So I'm based out of Okinawa.
Now the ship, USS Kearsarge, did come over from CENTCOM. They were supporting the CENTCOM mission. They were conducting some anti- piracy ops and essentially completing tasking as assigned by Admiral Fallon and the Admiral Cosgriff there in CENTCOM at 5th Fleet.
Q Admiral, I'm Lisa Daniel. I'm with AFPS. And I understand you said you'll be there as long as the Bangladesh government needs you. Do you have some idea at this point how long that will be? And how might your aid mission change over the next few weeks, if it will at all?
ADM. POTTENGER: I really can't put a timeline on our presence here. I will tell you that earlier Commander Rabbi mentioned the town of Barisal. That is the main logistics hub that the government of Bangladesh and the military are using to stockpile materials and then have our rotary wing lift it out of there to the more remote sites.
The government and the military also have in place at this point a very effective road network, transportation by trucks and all kinds of surface lift. So the material appears to be moving pretty quickly from there -- from Dhaka to Barisal out to the sites that need us.
That said, aid continues to flow into the country. So it would really be very difficult for me to gauge what the future holds.
Q Admiral, Otto -- this is -- Commander Rabbi, Otto Kreisher again. Bangladesh was hit by a very disastrous storm several years ago.
Could you compare with this one with that -- the reports coming back, it doesn't seem to be this one is quite as dire a situation as the one several years ago.
ADM. POTTENGER: I was just consulting with Commander Rabbi and I'll give him the mic afterwards. There were close to 140,000 killed in 1991 in that previous storm. This storm, a little over 3,000. There was, I think, significantly more damage in 1991. I think the excellent news story -- and I would ask Commander Rabbi to elaborate -- is that the government of Bangladesh evacuated hundreds of thousands of citizens prior to this storm. They had a lot of preparations in place beforehand and really did an amazing job in protecting their citizens.
CMDR. RABBI: If you look into 1991, there's -- (inaudible) area which is much populated when compared to the very small area which this is this year. So the government had the preparations before, the communications were well, and people were evacuated from the places where they were to the shelter stations. And I think this time, casualties were more less -- I mean, less than 4,000, and I think it's a credit for the government to do so.
COL. KECK: Al?
Q Admiral, in addition to the humanitarian mission, is there a diplomatic component to your mission? And Commander, can you say if there's a diplomacy or public diplomacy impact, as well as a humanitarian impact?
ADM. POTTENGER: My mission here is to provide the operational forces to General Bailey ashore in support of helping the aid distribution as dictated by the government of Bangladesh. We do this all the time. This is what the Navy Marine Corps team is very good at. I promise you, as an operational commander in 7th Fleet, we watch every storm, we watch every typhoon very carefully. We plan ahead for scenarios that might result if and where they would go ashore. We recognized that this one was heading for the coast of Bangladesh and tried to position ourselves to respond so that we could provide that emergency -- that early relief if requested.
We're doing good work here. Certainly we hope that the work is recognized and appreciated. But we get a lot of satisfaction out of having the opportunity to make a difference in this capacity as well. It's very rewarding for every sailor and Marine that's been involved in this effort.
CMDR. RABBI: If you look at the (Inaudible) side, the Navy is coming to help others in the disaster management, as we also did during the tsunamis of Sri Lanka in 2004 and '05. Similarly, the U.S. Navy did it in 1991. That was the biggest one. As of now, this is also going to be a very good effort, and by many of the friendly nations, including United States. And I would say that this is what the Navy is for.
COL. KECK: Well, ma'am, we appreciate your time with us today. We, I think, have exhausted the questions. And you've given us a great deal of information from this end and we appreciate that. We would like to turn it over to you or any of your able help there for any closing comments or final piece of information you'd like us to have.
ADM. POTTENGER: Thank you very much. We do a appreciate having this time with you. And I'll just close with reiterating that the team out here is pumped up. We feel like we're making a difference. We're very glad to provide this assistance as requested by the Bangladesh government. And we're here as long as they need us, as we've talked about.
So I'll just close with Go Navy, Beat Army. And thanks again for your time.
COL. KECK: Thank you, ma'am. We appreciate your efforts and wish you Godspeed on the way.
And best of luck to Army. (Laughter.)
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