[This briefing occurs via satellite comm link between members of the Pentagon Press Corps and officers aboard the USS Kearsarge, at sea about 20 miles off the coast of Sierra Leone. Joining Captain Ertel in this briefingare Col. Sam Helland, USMC, Commander, Joint Task Force and Commander, 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, and Ms. Anne Wright, deputy chief of mission for Sierra Leone State Department.]
Captain Ertel: Good afternoon, this is Captain Greg Ertel, Commander, Amphibious Squadron 4.
It's been a very long day. We've evacuated just over 900 personnel to the USS Kearsarge which is a multipurpose amphibious assault ship. Of those 900 or so personnel, about 330 were Americans. The remainder were third country nationals from over 40 different countries.
If I was to describe my feelings today, I'd say it would be one of pride in these young men and women who pulled off this operation. My second thought would be that we have again demonstrated the forward presence of these amphibious ready groups -- the Navy/Marine Corps team, now, us and our sister ship, the Nassau, we've gone from Albania to Zaire with Sierre Leone in between. I'm very, very proud of these individuals.
Colonel Helland: Good afternoon, Colonel Sam Helland here.
Our non-combatant evacuation today demonstrated the flexibility and the tremendous capability of the MEU/ARG team. It reflects greatly on the Americans' ability to project power afloat, and again, it's a tremendous accomplishment for the Navy and the Marine Corps as we sail around the world.
Q: Colonel, did you encounter any difficulties in this operation?
Colonel Helland: No, not really. It went incredibly smooth. The Department of State did a tremendous job in there by organizing and making sure everything was available and ready, and everybody was stationed and planned to get on board the aircraft when they arrived.
Captain Ertel: I'd just like to add to that that the training of this Navy/Marine Corps team that have been together now for six months practicing these types of operations is part of that that made this evolution go so smoothly today.
Q: Were there any U.S. injuries whatsoever to the evacuees or to U.S. forces? Did any planes at any point in time take any fire from the ground?
Colonel Helland: Absolutely not. The coordination that was done, again, by the Department of State with the factions that were in the country to make sure that this was a smooth, seamless evolution was tremendous. We received no firing whatsoever on any Marines or any civilians in the zone today.
Q: Colonel, when do you expect to have the operation complete?
Colonel Helland: We expect the operation to be complete in a couple of hours. We're doing some final checking on who's coming aboard and pulling the last Marines out of the zone as we speak.
Q: How many more personnel to take aboard?
Colonel Helland: Yes, they will be shortly. They're on the way back to the ship.
Q: How many helicopter sorties to get all of the evacuees onto the ship so far?
Colonel Helland: That's correct.
Q: How many?
Captain Ertel: You're asking for the total number of evacuees?
Colonel Helland: The number of sorties that we flew today?
Colonel Helland: We don't have an exact number of the amount of sorties that we flew today. All we can say is a lot. We had CH-46's and CH-53s that were keeping the flow of evacuees from the shore to the ship going as fast as they could.
Q: I'd like to ask the Colonel, this seems to be an increasingly frequent type of operation. Is the Marine Corps getting better at it? Are there some mistakes you made in some of the earlier operations that you know to correct now? Is this becoming standard procedure for you?
Colonel Helland: Can you repeat the question, please?
Q: I'm just wondering. It seems like this is an increasingly frequent type of operation. Are there mistakes you made in earlier evacuation operations which you now have learned from experience to avoid?
Colonel Helland: The 22nd MEU that I'm in command of right now, this is our first full fledged rehearsal, correction, NEO that we've done. Therefore, I really can't recall. I can only talk about this operation. I think it went rather well.
Q: This is a question for Ann Wright. Is she in the room? Can you give us the background of the decision to close the doors of the embassy? You apparently had voted to stay, and the State Department overruled you. Can you tell us about that?
Ms. Wright: Granted, the security environment was deteriorating, and I was recommending that the majority of our embassy staff go ahead and leave the country. However, I felt it was very important that the U.S. keep a presence there.
I was willing to stay myself, to keep that presence. However, it turned out that the numbers of people it was recommended that would have to stay around me in order for me to be there and to be secure was really too many, and it was felt that it was not the right thing to do. My presence and security was felt to be of a higher nature than going ahead and moving out and temporarily suspending operations in Sierre Leone.
I personally always hate to see the United States flag taken down for any reason, and I was willing to stay. But on the other hand, when you potentially are endangering a lot of other people by staying there, then of course you... The State Department made its call, and I certainly can live with it.
Q: Can you please describe the deteriorating situation on the ground that has led to the decision to close the embassy? How bad was it?
Ms. Wright: There were several things that started happening in rapid sequence. We were getting lots of reports of the rebel forces, the RUF, coming into Freetown in collaboration with this new Armed Forces Ruling Council. The Council itself had suspended all civil liberties, had, well, suspended the constitution, banned political parties, and was making no effort at all, really, to talk about any sort of a democratic government. They were...
The deteriorating security condition was a follow-on of all of the looting and chaotic behavior that happened on the day of the coup last Sunday. With the variety of things that were starting to happen in the city, to include emplacements, fortifications being put in, in and around the embassy, in the environment of the embassy, the fortifying of the state house, the heavy, heavy movement of troops through the city ... what appeared to be a Nigerian military operation to restore the former government. Those escalating series of events were of concern.
Q: A question for Ms. Wright. Can you tell us if negotiations are continuing between embassy staff, the Nigerians and the rebels? Also a question for the colonel, are the Special Operation Forces still on the ground?
Colonel Helland: The Special Operations Forces were recovered aboard the ship with the other Marines.
Ms. Wright: And there still are discussions that are going on between the diplomatic corps and the Armed Forces Ruling Council; although yesterday the noon meeting that we were to have with them, the Council members showed up, and then apparently later on in the afternoon went to the office of... Well, requested that the diplomatic corps go to the ... headquarters which is an area where the State Department had told me not to go into because of the potential threat of being taken hostage.
The Armed Forces Council, several delegates from it, did go to the British High Commissioner's Office yesterday afternoon, and a very long conversation was held with the British High Commissioner where he, again, reiterated, as all of us have been underscoring the total international condemnation of the coup and the demand of the international community that the elected government be returned to power.
Q: When you left the embassy, by that point in time had there been any attempt to loot the embassy? What's your knowledge of the condition of the embassy now?
Ms. Wright: When we pulled the Marines out about 8 o'clock this morning, we made a decision to wait until daylight and until some people were on the street, and not to use an overwhelming and uniformed military contingent to go after them. We thought that would be a provocative way to do things, and we felt we could extract them easier with less chance for danger to them doing it in that manner.
When I left, we had no reports of anyone attempting to go up into the embassy. We still have Wackenhut guards on the embassy, not that they could keep out a lot, but the embassy itself is quite shot up. It suffered a lot of hits during the fighting on Sunday -- RPGs, a lot of heavy damage to the top floor. Most of the windows are broken out, rain coming into it. We were only able to go back into it really Monday in order to assess the damage.
Q: Can we talk to one of the pilots who actually conducted some of the missions?
Colonel Helland: Captain Tom Salino will answer any questions.
Q: Can you describe what you saw and what you did?
Captain Salino: We made a very early morning launch, a pre-launch to ensure the first security element into the Hotel LZ [landing zone]. The sea was very calm. We didn't have any fire directed at us. We moved with accuracy in order to get the forces inserted. I think that went very well.
Q: Were you evacuating mostly adults? Did you have children on your helicopter? Any anecdotal things about people that you helped to get on and get out?
Captain Salino: Yes. We had men, women and children. We had one woman who was in labor, so we had to figure out how we were going to get her back to the ship, and that caused some consternation. We flew 85 sorties today, round-about numbers, to get all the ... and the third country nationals back to the ship.
Q: Has the woman in labor given birth yet?
Captain Salino: No, sir. She hasn't. But we're kind of hoping she'll give the child the name of Kearsarge in there. (Laughter)
Q: I'd like to ask the pilot how closely today's operation reflected the training that you do for this type of operation.
Captain Salino: It was exactly the scenarios that we went over during STX's, during the work-up, that's a staff training exercise. The mission mirrors closely the SOCX which is the culminating exercise for each of the MEU SOCs, ... development. It mirrors a lot of what we've already done in training, that we planned for and executed back at Camp LeJeune with the Navy and Marine Corps team.
Q: Could somebody just recap for those of us who tuned in late, the total numbers of those evacuated and when you think the operation will be officially declared over?
Colonel Helland: We have evacuated approximately 300 American citizens, an additional 600 third country nationals, and we expect to hear very shortly when the evacuation will be officially over.
Q: Do you have any more flights to make?
Captain Salino: No, we are done flying.
Q: Are all the Marines back aboard yet?
Colonel Helland: They're en-route. We expect them back momentarily.
Q: What was the highest number of U.S. military on the ground in order to help with this evacuation?
Colonel Helland: Approximately 200.
Q: What role did they all play, roughly?
Captain Ertel: They played all sorts of roles. We have pilots, we have our individuals that specialize in evacuations, we have our battalion lining team to provide security for the evacuation site. We have many other individuals doing a variety of things, so it's hard to really capitalize what everyone did when they were in there.
Q: Can you describe how you are fitting 900 people aboard that ship? Where you are sticking them, where they are sleeping, eating, bathing, etc.?
Colonel Helland: What the ship has basically done, we've taken the berthing areas where most of the enlisted and the officers are living, and pushed those forward and aft and made spaces available in those areas so that the children and men and women can live in those areas, and then the Marines and the sailors will move to other parts of the ship. Probably part of them will have to spend the night on the hangar bay. Certainly it's going to be a tough quarters tonight. We have to keep an eye on everyone. Children are not very comfortable on ships because they bump their knees and the ship is moving. But I think we'll manage it well, and I think it will be an interesting time.
Q: Who is speaking, number one, and how many children do you think you have on that ship now?
Colonel Helland: Colonel Helland speaking, and give me a moment to check a number.
Q: What were the weather conditions?
Captain Ertel: Weather conditions were pretty fair today. We were very fortunate. Normally in the afternoon the weather conditions turn into local thunderstorms this time of year, it's the rainy season, but they held off most of the day and it wasn't until the final few hours where the pilots had to dodge the thunderstorms to get...
Colonel Helland: We do not have an accurate number on children at this time.
Q: Do you have any kind of guess? Is it 20 or 100 or 200?
Colonel Helland: Can you repeat the question, please?
Q: Even if you don't have an accurate head count, do you have orders of magnitude? Ten children, 100 children?
Captain Ertel: We'll go ahead and guesstimate approximately 200 children.
Q: Can you describe what's going to happen over the next 24 hours or 48 hours with these people? When do you expect to fly them off to Guinea?
Ms. Wright: A lot of the people will stay in Guinea. So one aspect is flying them off, getting them processed into Guinea so that they can go to friends and family... We would like to do that expeditiously.
I believe the State Department has chartered an aircraft that, the last I heard, officially, was coming in on Sunday night. Depending on how many persons opted to take that flight or if there are enough more people that will go on one plane then chartering another plane for those who want to get out to Europe and then eventually back to the United States. But there are a substantial number of Sierre Leonians who just needed to get away from what they felt was a very threatening and insecure situation and to the neighboring country of Guinea where they'll wait it out and then return to Sierre Leone quickly after the resolution of this crisis.
Q: Just to clarify whether this operation is over or not. Are you saying that you've taken out all the people that you're going to take out, and that as soon as the Marines who are now aboard helicopters en-route to the ship, land on the ship, the operation is over?
Ms. Wright: We feel that we extracted those Americans who showed an interest in leaving. We have a total, I believe, of like maybe 450 maximum, or that had registered with our consular services. I believe we, if I look at the chart right, there was something like 320 that came out, so that was a substantial percentage -- 75 percent almost of the numbers that were registered did come out.
We do know there were a lot of people that were already out of country. In fact we had shipped out half of our U.S. embassy staff the day before on a British charter, British flight, and a lot of Americans went out there. So while there may be the odd American here, there or yonder, they were provided with notice and we certainly hope everyone that wanted to get out got down to that landing zone so that we could extract them. There were a couple of others that were up country that did not choose to come down to Freetown for an evacuation, and we certainly hope that their safety is secured.
Q: So you are through evacuating people and it's just now waiting for those Marines to get back to the ship? That's the only thing that hasn't been completed?
Ms. Wright: Yes. That's correct.
Q: Were there any high ranking government officials among those who were evacuated?
Ms. Wright: Yes, there were. The former Deputy Minister of Defense was evacuated, and the Minister of Planning was evacuated. And several members of the various civic groups. But those were the two most senior people of the former government.
Q: How will you feed all these people? What will they eat?
Captain Ertel: Everybody's going to be eating the same thing, and to be honest, I haven't had a chance to check on dinner tonight, but basically the same thing as the sailors and marines. I know for lunch we had cookies, we had cold cuts, brownies, I saw some kids eating ice cream cones. We have about anything they could ask for her above the Kearsarge. We're pretty much self-sustaining. This is our 44th day at sea, and we have remained at sea doing all of our replenishment and our ... at sea.
Press: Thank you.