Humanitarian Aid

Humanitarian Operations Save Lives, Build Goodwill

April 15, 2019 | BY David Vergun

The Defense Department frequently participates in humanitarian assistance and disaster response missions in the U.S. and abroad.

DOD is uniquely postured to provide this assistance because of assets such as transport ships and aircraft, medical personnel, engineering equipment and search and rescue expertise.

DOD almost always works in cooperation with other federal agencies and nongovernmental organizations, such as the Red Cross, U.S. Agency for International Development and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The services also usually work alongside allied and partner nation militaries and agencies.

Humanitarian operations often result in lives saved and goodwill here and abroad. Additionally, these operations help build partnerships, particularly when nations participate in disaster response exercises before an actual disaster strikes.

Plane flies low over crowd
West Berliners Watch
West Berliners watch as a Douglas C-54 Skymaster aircraft lands at West Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport in 1948.
Photo By: Henry Ries, Air Force
VIRIN: 480719-F-ZZZ99-101D

DOD’s humanitarian aid efforts are not new. During the 1948-49 Berlin Airlift, food and relief supplies were delivered by air to the people of West Berlin after the Soviets blocked rail and road traffic to the city.

Marines clear debris off a road.
Operation Tomodachi
Marines with the Battalion Landing Team 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, clear debris off a road in Miyagi, Japan, April 4, 2011 during Operation Tomodachi humanitarian relief efforts.
Photo By: Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Garry J. Welch
VIRIN: 110404-M-XX000-025


Humanitarian operations frequently occur in the Ring of Fire, a seismically active belt of earthquake epicenters, volcanoes and tectonic plate boundaries along the Pacific coast of the Americas and Asia. DOD took part in a large-scale humanitarian operation in 2011 in Japan called Operation Tomodachi, after a large earthquake and tsunami devastated an area of northwest Honshu.

Soldier gives instructions to construction workers
Construction Instruction
Command Sgt. Maj. Jeffery Stitzel, U.S. Army Africa Command, talks with armed forces of Liberia engineers as they work on building an Ebola treatment unit in Tubmanburg, Liberia, Oct. 15, 2014.
Photo By: Army Sgt. 1st Class Will Patterson
VIRIN: 141015-A-ZZ999-010

An unusual humanitarian operation took place in 2014 — Operation United Assistance. The services, in support of USAID, provided medical, engineering and other assets to fight against the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa, particularly Liberia.

Troops hand off USAID boxes
Box Handoff
U.S. Marines and Nepalese soldiers unload tarps off of a UH-1Y Venom helicopter at Orang, Nepal, during Operation Sahayogi Haat, May 2015.
Photo By: Marine Corps Cpl. Isaac Ibarra
VIRIN: 150519-M-XX123-002


One of the most remote humanitarian operations, Operation Sahayogi Haat, took place in Nepal in 2015 in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake. Marine Corps helicopters and tilt-rotor aircraft flew relief supplies into remote Himalayan Mountain villages and Air Force C-17 Globemaster III aircraft transported supplies as well.

Service members unload boxes from a large truck.
Relief Efforts
U.S. service members assigned to Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, unload humanitarian aid off of a truck with the help of a U.S. Agency for International Development members and local aid workers in Maputo, Mozambique, April 4, 2019. CJTF-HOA is leading U.S. Department of Defense Cyclone Idai relief efforts in support of USAID’s Disaster Assistance Response Team.
Photo By: Air Force Tech. Sgt. Thomas Grimes
VIRIN: 190404-F-RP963-0823

A recent humanitarian operation was the Mozambique Humanitarian Relief effort to provide relief aid to that nation, following Cyclone Idai’s devastation in March. DOD’s participation ended April 13.

Man drives heavy equipment
Katrina Cleanup
Army Sgt. Cory B. Rees operates a skid-steer loader while wearing a surgical mask to muffle stench during cleanup operations in Gulfport, Miss., Sept. 5, 2005, during relief operations after Hurricane Katrina.
Photo By: Murray B. Shugars, National Guard Bureau
VIRIN: 050905-Z-ZZ999-001

An example of a large DOD/FEMA domestic humanitarian operation took place in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, which devastated parts of Louisiana and other Gulf Coast areas to the east.

Video by Air Force Tech. Sgt. Thomas Grimes