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DOD News Briefing with Lt. Gen. Keen from Haiti

Presenters: Deputy Commander, U.S. Southern Command Lt. Gen. Ken Keen
January 26, 2010

                 (Note:  General Keen appears via teleconference from Haiti.) 

 

                MODERATOR:  Okay, good morning.  We're privileged to have with us today from Haiti Lieutenant General Ken Keen.  General Keen is the deputy commander of U.S. Southern Command, and currently the commander of Joint Task Force Unified Response.  General Keen, I'll kick it to you for any opening remarks that you'd like to make, and then we'll start the questions. 

 

                GEN. KEEN:  Okay.  Thank you very much. 

 

                Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, and thank you for the opportunity to join you today and update you on the efforts under way by the international community here in Haiti.  I know you join me in extending our condolences to the Haitian people.  Our hearts and prayers continue to be with Haiti's citizens during this tragic time. All of us here in Haiti and across the globe partnered in this recovery effort share an uncommon passion and commitment to do all we can to help the government of Haiti and the Haitian people recover from this tragedy. 

 

                We're employing all our resources as fast as we can, and we continue to make progress here every day.  Every day, it's better than the previous day, and I expect tomorrow to be better than today.  We are working in partnership with the United Nations and the international community.  We enjoy incredible teamwork with and for all contributing partners and the people of Haiti.  In fact, early on the morning of 24 January in Cite Soleil, we operated a joint food distribution point.  This was done in conjunction with the Brazilian battalion assigned to the United Nations.   

 

                Cite Soleil was and still is in dire need of relief.  It was one of the toughest neighborhoods in this city for years.  Our soldiers assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division handed out over 14,400 meals ready to eat and over 19,700 bottles of water, all done in about a six-hour period, to a peaceful yet anxious crowd.   

 

                Other developments include:  The 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina continues its operations in communities west of Port-au-Prince.  The communities include the towns of Petit Goave and Leogane, which if -- last week, you recall, were in dire need of support.  It is estimated that 10,000 people in these areas have been killed and 400,000 have been displaced. 

 

                I was there yesterday visiting our Marines, and -- who are working jointly with the Sri Lankan soldiers assigned to the United Nations, supporting the United States Agency for International Development and other international organizations so that much-needed relief supplies are provided to these areas. 

 

                The 2nd Brigade Combat Team from the 82nd Airborne Division is now over 3,000 strong and continues its operations here in Port-au- Prince.  And yesterday, their medics prepared 22 Haitians for aerial medivac -- aerial med evacuation.   

 

                The hospital ship the United States Naval Ship Comfort is here offshore providing fantastic medical support.  To date, the Comfort has taken aboard 387 patients.  It's important to note that all of the Haitian patients were screened and selected by the Haitian Ministry of Health.  A hundred and one surgeries have been performed aboard the hospital ship.  The pharmacy on board this amazing floating hospital has filled over 11,800 prescriptions.  History was made onboard the Comfort when her staff delivered its first baby.   

 

                The 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit from Camp Lejeune arrived last Saturday and immediately went into operation off the coast of Gonaives.  We currently have over 4,700 boots on the ground and over 10,700 afloat for an aggregate strength of over 15,400 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines and Coast Guard.   

 

                Our airmen number 550 and continue to run the airport operations, controlling both helicopters and airplanes.  Over the last 24 hours, they've landed over 200 aircraft.   

 

                Our Navy and Coast Guard have 20 ships operating off the coast of Haiti in support of relief operations.   

 

                As of this morning, in support of humanitarian assistance efforts, we have delivered over one-point-million bottles of water and one-point-million MREs [meals ready to eat] to the people of Haiti since this operation started.  That's only what the Joint Task Force has delivered.   

 

                The security situation here in Haiti remains relatively calm. Distribution points remain relatively orderly throughout our efforts in -- both here in the city and out in outlying areas.  We have had extremely positive feedback from all those that we reach out and touch.  The United Nations security forces continue to address the emerging security requirements with great agility and responsiveness.   

 

                General Floriano Peixoto, the Brazilian commander who is in charge of the 14-nation United Nations forces here, is aggressively employing his forces to maintain the secure environment that enables us to continue our primary focus on humanitarian aid distribution. 

 

                Medical relief capacity has grown since last week, with the arrival of several international field hospitals and surgical teams.  Currently, portable hospitals from nine nations, including the United States, are involved in medical support.  These countries are Argentina, Israel, Russia, Portugal, Turkey, Colombia, France and Brazil.  We have doctors working in these hospitals from around the world, to include Mexico and Japan. 

 

                Thank you very much.  At this time I will take any of your questions. 

 

                MODERATOR:  Anne. 

 

                Q     General Keen, this is Anne Flaherty with the Associated Press.  I wanted to ask you -- you said in the past that troops will stay as long as they're needed, but how long do you think that that might be?  And have you started to plan for the inevitable redeployment of these troops? 

 

                GEN. KEEN:  Okay.  Thank you for the question.   

 

                Well, our response here, both from the international community but particularly from the United States military, is in reaction to the emergency need to save lives and focus on humanitarian assistance. We are working with the United States Agency for International Development [USAID] and other -- international community.  As they build up their capacity to provide that much-needed assistance, the need for our military forces will decrease.  And we are talking to them as they build the capacity to do just that.  

 

                Obviously, along with USAID, the United Nations and other nongovernment organizations, such as the World Food Program, as they look at building their capacity to deliver much-needed humanitarian aid, we will be able to scale back our assistance.  But right now our focus is on providing this emergency relief that is so desperately needed. 

 

                MODERATOR:  (Off mike.) 

 

                Q     Hi, General.  This is Courtney Kube from NBC News.  Just following up on that, yesterday, at a conference in Montreal, the Haitian representative said that it would take five to 10 years before Haiti could be rebuilt to the -- to where it was before the earthquake.  So just to be clear, you don't see an actual U.S.  military presence there for that five to 10 years; you think that would be more NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and State Department organization? 

 

                GEN. KEEN:  Well, I think it has been said that the, you know, government of Haiti, in conjunction with the international community, is developing a recovery plan, a reconstruction plan, that will take, as you mentioned, a number of years. 

 

                But I think as the -- our role here is providing this immediate need for this emergency assistance and supporting USAID as they go forward and develop that plan and transitioning these tasks that we're currently doing over to them.  And we're all focused on that, but we have to see, as we develop the situation and as they build their capacity. 

 

                We're already seeing much of that capacity being looked at, whether it be in the area of delivering water or even in the area of medical assistance.  For example, a hospital that we are looking at building and creating in order to address the medical needs is a 5,000-man bed hospital that is needed desperately to take patients off of the Comfort [U.S. Navy medical ship] and from other hospitals for post-surgical care.   

 

                They're not -- in order to allow the hospitals that are currently addressing the needs to treat these critical care patients, we need a place to put those that need care before they're, obviously, released. We need to build that capacity.  We are working with NGOs both within United Nations to staff that hospital, and we obviously can enable that process by helping them get it started. 

 

                But it's across the board, whether it's delivery of food, delivery of water, building their medical capacity.  And as the NGOs and international community build up their capability and they develop these plans, the requirements for not just the United States military but other military, such as Canada, France and others who are here providing much-needed assistance, will no longer be needed. 

 

                Q     Can I ask one other?  You also, when you mentioned the number of U.S. forces afloat and ashore, it seemed like the numbers are lower than the briefing that we had with General Fraser last week indicated.  We were told that there would be closer to about 20,000 by the end of the weekend.  Can you explain?  Where's the discrepancy there?  It seems like there's about 5,000 fewer troops now, U.S. troops, than we had anticipated. 

 

                GEN. KEEN:  Well, we still have troops coming.  In our support realm, for example we have the 3rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command of the U.S. Army coming here. 

 

                They have less than 10 percent of their forces on the ground here right now.  But it's growing rapidly.   

 

                We expect over the next 48 hours to 72 hours to see upwards of over 20 companies from the sustainment area arriving with much needed equipment.  And that's the logistical pieces that'll be put in place. So our capability on the ground is still growing, as we are able to continue to do what we're doing.   

 

                So we will see the number of troops rise and fall based upon the conditions on the ground and as we determine what capabilities that we no longer need or capabilities that we need that maybe were not initially forecasted.   

 

                But we very much are remaining flexible and agile to work with the international community, to determine who can provide what critical needs, in order to continue providing much needed relief to the people of Haiti.   

 

                Q     General, Jeff with Stars and Stripes.   

 

                You had mentioned a 5,000-bed hospital is needed to start transferring patients of the Comfort.  How long will it take to build this hospital?   

 

                GEN. KEEN:  Well, that's a very good question.  And we are looking at that.  We are anticipating to at least get the seeds of that hospital up, within the next week or so, but that we'll begin small and then grow from there.   

 

                We are hoping to be able to at least start with a 250-man centerpiece of that.  And we have the equipment that is either -- has arrived within the last 12 to 24 hours or will be arriving shortly.   

 

                Again the manning of that hospital -- we are turning to NGOs. And they are responding, in terms of being able to manage the hospital and in being able to staff the hospital.   

 

                We are enabling that by working with the international community to procure tinnage and all the things that you can imagine you need, in order to build a hospital of that magnitude.   

 

                We have our best surgeons and medical personnel looking at this again planning it, along with the minister of health and the United  Nations.  The government immediately gave us access to a large piece of the land that could be used effectively, to not just take patients off the Comfort.   

 

                But that is a principal source of patients that we want to do, because obviously the capability of the Comfort -- we want to continue to see a flow of patients that need that critical care that the Comfort offers and then take patients off of her that do not need that any longer, in order to maximize the utility of the Comfort.   

 

                But also, from these other hospitals that I mentioned that have patients that could be cared for before they're released, that's what this particular hospital would provide us. 

 

                So to get her to 5,000-bed capacity, I don't have the analysis yet provided by everyone to determine that; nor all the resources. But I expect to see the seeds of that hospital up and operating within the next several weeks. 

 

                Q     Just a quick follow-up.  SOUTHCOM is saying there are about 13,000 troops afloat, for a total number of 17,800.  When you gave your numbers this morning, were you including the 24th MEU [Marine Expeditionary Unit]? 

 

                GEN. KEEN:  Yes.  My numbers, again, are including the 24th MEU. If there are discrepancies between my numbers and SOUTHCOM's, I'll certainly take that back and rectify it.  It could be based upon the reporting dates that we report numbers.  As you know, we track these very closely, but we have cutoff dates for certain -- cutoff times each day for certain numbers.  So the discrepancy could be based upon when we selected our data.  But, yes, my numbers certainly include the 24th MEU. 

 

                Q     General, it's Al Pessin, from Voice of America. 

 

                Going in, were you concerned about the impact of sending in so many armed troops, with all their vehicles and their camouflage uniforms and so on?  Did -- was there any actual impact of that?  Or what steps did you take to ameliorate what could be the impact of that?  And to what do you attribute the relative lack of violence of any kind, especially in those conditions with still scarce resources being distributed? 

 

                GEN. KEEN:  Well, I attribute the lack of violence, as you've mentioned, one, to the -- to the great resilience of the Haitian people, their patience and their understanding that the world is coming to help them. 

 

                At the same time, I also certainly give credit to General Peixoto and all the 17 nations that make up the United Nations.  They have been out there every day.  And you have to remember, when this earthquake hit, it struck everyone, and it struck the United Nations headquarters and General Peixoto's staff as well, and he lost a number of soldiers.   

 

                But they immediately went into action.  I met with his deputy commander within hours after first light after the earthquake, and he had troops out doing patrolling.  Obviously, they were trying to account for their personnel like everyone else.   

 

                But he has done everything I think is necessary to ensure that we have a safe and secure environment which enables all of us, all the nations who have military here, as well as the NGOs, to go about and do the best job we can to focus on providing humanitarian assistance. 

 

                With respect to your question about concern for the presence of our military personnel, all I can say is we have been welcomed with open arms wherever we go.  Every day I go out and visit our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.  I walk among the Haitians, and they are very welcoming of us.  We have had no security incidents with our particular forces.   

 

                We obviously take great precaution.  And we have translators down to platoon level if at all possible, and in most cases we have sufficient translators to get them to platoon level, if not lower, both French and Creole, so that we can communicate effectively with the civic leaders, explain to them what we're doing so they understand what we're there for and what we're trying to accomplish.   

 

                In many cases it is the civic leaders who are organizing the distribution point, and we're simply enabling the NGOs and the civic leaders to provide this much-needed aid.  So it's a partnership and really going about doing our job.  And as we go around the city and we travel in our humvees and other vehicles, we do it as cautiously as possible and as least intrusive as possible, but obviously with the mission in mind. 

 

                Obviously, helicopters -- helicopter operations have to be of great concern where we're operating, to ensure the safety of not only our crews but certainly the people on the ground.  And that is a key component about where we land the helicopters, ensuring that it's safe and doesn't provide a disturbance on the ground, and explaining to the populace. 

 

                So those are the type of measures that we're taking here. 

 

                Q     General, it's Mike Mount with CNN.  Just returning to the hospital question again, I just wanted to be clear:  Who is actually going to build that hospital?  Is that a U.S. military project?  And if so -- or was that kind of a contractor project?  And if so, where's the money coming from there? 

 

                And also, how long do you anticipate the Comfort, the Nassau and the Bataan to be there to be taking patients as you start this hospital project? 

 

                GEN. KEEN:  Well, your second question first.  We are going to be here as long as we're needed.  And I'd go back to, how long we're going to be needed is based upon how soon we're able to build up the capacity of the United Nations, USAID capability to get means in here to take care of the medical needs of the populace, water, food, those type of things.  Plans are in place to put mechanisms to sustain providing water, food and medical assistance.  But it's going to take time, obviously, to get those things in place. 

 

                With respect to your second question, on -- or first question, on the hospital, this is truly a joint venture.  Obviously, we're taking the lead of the Minister of Health, who has been very aggressive in working with us and the United Nations -- again, working alongside the United Nations, a medical cluster that really determines the needs and requirements, along with the government of Haiti.  We have some capabilities, such as a core of the hospital capability being principally equipment that we can put on the ground to start the seed of that, and then working with the United Nations and USAID to contract to build the tentage or other structures that are needed to actually build a hospital. 

 

                So we are very much in a(n) advisory and assist role in that, providing what we can to get it started.  We're talking along with the United Nations and the medical clusters, to get volunteer NGOs that have access to doctors.  We've already -- I've met with several that are very anxious to provide the management and the core of the medical staff, because all of them recognize that having this capability is essential to normalizing -- as best as you can normalize -- the medical situation. 

 

                So it's very much a team effort.  And we are taking the direction of the minister of health, along with the United Nations medical leads.   

 

                Q     General, it's Luis Martinez with ABC News.   

 

                There seems to be a disparity between some neighborhoods having access to food and water and others that don't.  I'm assuming that those that don't are the ones that are being prioritized right now.   

 

                How do you transition to a more formal food-and-water delivery system?  Like has any consideration been given to field kitchens being set up in those neighborhoods?  And how soon do you anticipate a transition like that?   

 

                GEN. KEEN:  Thank you for that question, because I think that is key to sustaining what is desperately needed.  And that is the basic needs of the people.  I'll talk about food, because that's the one that is being worked on very aggressively with the World Food Program.  

 

                A number of days ago, along with the director of the World Food Program that came here, and we met with the United Nations.  And we worked together with all of the planners -- both from the United Nations, the government, the minister of agriculture, World Food Program -- and laid out the elements of a plan.   

 

                Particularly for Port-au-Prince, with the significance of the number of people that have to be fed here, what would be a plan that would be sufficient to do that?   

 

                Basically in concert with the government of Haiti, they've selected 15 distribution points throughout the city.  And they have obviously experience all around the world in doing this.   

 

                So we're simply enabling this to happen by delivering supplies and then working alongside the United Nations forces, because we will be running these distribution points with them, because they'll be -- most of them will be joint -- 12 of the 15 sites will be jointly secured and run, with U.S. military alongside the United Nations military.   

 

                And the other three will be run strictly by the United Nations forces. But each of these sites are set up to feed 15,000 people a day.  It will take over 1 million rations a day to sustain these 15 distribution points.  We need to have up to -- over 5 million rations ready to go, in order to kick this off. 

 

                And basically, what we're doing -- and I think the director of the World Food Program has laid this out in previous discussions -- is we're flooding the city with food.  I mean, food is being delivered right now, but it's being delivered pretty much in terms of where we can get to and where we can distribute it.  It's not being -- there's no distribution points that are set up that are being sustained where every day a family member can depend upon a particular location providing food and water. 

 

                So these 15 points will be set up.  Every day, we'll feed 15,000 people.  If a family member, it would be a female family member, comes in, she will get sufficient supplies for her and five members of her family to last two weeks.  And therefore, if you do the math and calculate it, as they come through, over two weeks, you're able to sustain and feed the -- those that are in need within the Port-au- Prince area. 

 

                And so we need to sustain that.  That's sort of the -- that phase of it.  The next phase, the World Food Program working with USAID and other NGOs, is to move to how do you get off of the MREs, or the humanitarian rations, and get them on a dry food, or set up some type of sustainable kitchen.  So that is being looked at as well:  How do you move beyond this for a sustainable mechanism and plan to feed the population? 

 

                We are also working with them to look at other areas outside Port-au-Prince that have been affected that need the same service. You can take the same thing each -- water is a little bit different, but clearly water is another basic necessity, and just sanitation issues.  So the United Nations cluster -- whether it be the food cluster or the medical cluster or the water and sanitation clusters -- all are working feverishly hard to put in place these long-term sustainers. 

 

                As those come up and operate and we're able to turn over the operation of those to NGOs who build the capacity to transport the food, et cetera, that's when our forces will no longer be needed and we can look at where we go from there. 

 

                Q     Hi, General.  It's Courtney Kube from NBC again.  I'm sorry, one more follow-up on this hospital.  I'm a little bit unclear about -- did you -- has it -- have you determined where it's going to be?  And then, did you answer Mike's question about who was paying for it, exactly?  Is it U.N. money, or -- 

 

                GEN. KEEN:  I'm sorry.  I -- your -- I'm not sure I heard your question correctly.  If I understood it, who determined the location of these distribution points?  And the answer to that is the government of Haiti in the form of their Minister of Agriculture in concert with the World Food Program.  And they have -- based upon their experiences in other locations, they picked those based upon where the population densities are at.   

 

                Q     Well, thank you for that.  I have one other question, actually, about the hospital.  Is -- where is that going to be located?  Have you determined that yet?  And then also, who's -- who is paying for that, ultimately?  I think Mike asked you earlier, but I'm still not quite clear on that. 

 

                GEN. KEEN:  The hospital -- the location of the hospital was picked based upon proximity to where the Comfort is.  We needed it in fairly close proximity to the shore, but we also needed it in a location where we had, obviously, access through a road network, so -- and enough land to put it up.  So the location that's been selected, in concert with the government, is approximately 10 miles north of Cite Soleil, if you're familiar with the area around Port-au-Prince.   

 

                The -- as far as the paying of the cost of the hospital, that is being done, I believe, in concert with the United Nations.  But don't quote me on that.  Quite frankly, I have not been in discussions to the detail of determining where all the costs for the hospital -- but each nation, for example, we are providing a piece of that that's coming with our normal deployment of assistance.  So we're bearing the cost of getting this thing up in terms of putting some equipment in there to get it started and obviously all the things that we initially supported. 

 

                But the overall cost of operating a hospital, I think, is being looked at, obviously, between the United Nations and the -- through the various donor countries that are providing assistance here. 

 

                MODERATOR:  All right, General.  Thank you.  I know that you're pressed for time here.  You've got lots on your plate.  So if you'd like to make any closing remarks, I'll send it back to you. 

 

                GEN. KEEN:  Okay.  Well, thank you very much.  I think it goes without saying, but the Haitians are really, in my interaction with them, the most resilient people I've ever seen.  As a nation, they have endured much in the past, and with the international and the interagency team support we have here, we're providing at their invitation, this nation will endure. 

 

                This is a Creole saying, and roughly paraphrased, it goes something like this:  The hands of many make the weight not so heavy.   

 

                Here in Haiti, we are joined with an incredible dedicated team of teams, with many hands committed to help Haiti, to lift the Haitian people out of this tragedy. 

 

                This cannot be done by any one nation, and it cannot be done without the dedication and commitment of a lot of volunteers around the world, the international organizations that do this, as well as the nongovernment organization.  It's truly we seek to have a unity of effort in everything that we do.   

 

                We have the -- Joint Task Force Haiti has created a Facebook fan page.  I welcome all of you to join that fan page, and we will seek to keep you informed of what we're doing here.  Please join us.  We'll provide the latest updates and photos of the operation. 

 

                And thank you very much for having me this morning. 

 

                MODERATOR:  Thank you, General.

 

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