The Work About to be Done

Part IV in a multi-part series about Operation Continuing Promise (Parts I, II, & III)
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The USS Kearsarge is abuzz as we pulled into Nicaraguan waters and weighed anchor. We go ashore today, in and around the town of Puerta Cabeza. The promise of this mission exceeds my expectations. The medical team has been prepping pills — counting them out from bulk and filling thousands of little plastic bags with a certain number of pills for distribution. Seabees helicoptered ashore yesterday to get a head start at the construction sites. Advance teams from the U.S. embassy began working with the Nicaraguan government four months ago to identify where work is needed and what work that will be. The construction efforts will include rehabbing schools and hospitals as well as new construction of elevated huts that can be used for a number of purposes. In Yulu they will cover a well and install a pump so that village has a reliable and clean source of drinking water. They will even install playground equipment.

Operation Continuing Promise represents a fairly new enterprise for the U.S. Navy. Beginning especially with the tsunami in Indonesia in 2004, the Navy and Marine Corps have engaged in large-scale humanitarian missions — this ship and her crew were in Bangladesh just last year to help undo the devastation of hurricane Sidr — but this is among the first times such a mission has been conducted pro-actively rather than in response to a disaster.

I had a chance to sit and talk with Chaplain O’Bannon who is coordinating the COMREL (Community Relations) efforts. Through COMREL members of the ship’s crew can volunteer to go ashore and assist in the work. All tolled, that translates to 20,000 man hours of volunteer labor. These are the folks who make this ship function — food prep, maintenance, computer technology, custodial, admin assistants, engine room, flight deck crew, mechanics, etc. They will get a rare opportunity to leave the ship and go ashore to help out with the work of the mission. On her previous mission the Kearsarge spent six months supporting OIF and OEF, as well as helping out in Bangladesh. The crew had a few days of liberty in a few port cities, but during long stretches of mission-sensitive activity the crew was confined to the ship while the airmen and Marines deployed to take part in on-shore activities. After a six-month stop-over back at home port in Norfolk the ship was cleaned and readied for three different major inspections and steamed up to New York City for fleet week.That six months of shore time was anything but R&R.Chaplain O’Bannon said this mission is special for the crew in giving them an opportunity to take some ownership of the mission rather than just serving as transportation. One sailor who was disappointed that they only had six months in the States — and that was hardly restful time — said she finds this mission not as difficult as she thought she might because of the nature of the mission. She is happy to be helping out. The crew is “a cog in the wheel on an ordinary mission, but on this one they get to go ashore and take part in the mission…It’s important to give them ownership of what we’re doing in this mission by sending them ashore…they will benefit from helping others an being involved in the greater mission.” Purely pragmatically, that benefit will show up as a positive in their evals as community service hours, but the benefits of helping others will affect all.

The people eager to go ashore? I met a bulldozer mechanic who writes poetry and indulges in freelance social experimentation. There’s a sailor who works in the “pit” — the engine room about 30′ below water level where the temperature is anywhere between 105 and 140 — who got into the Navy to help pay for college and plans on getting out when his enlistment runs out so he can finish his degree in sociology and psychology. A Marine I met on the flight deck as I was peering over the edge said that the water was 70′ down. He’s jumped from greater heights: while he lived in Hawaii he would jump 2-3 times a week off a 150′ cliff that had jagged rocks sticking 10′ out of the cliff face and a coral reef under the water ten feet beyond the cliff. So he had to jump far out from the cliff, but not too far, and he had to time the jump so the massive waves wouldn’t bash him into the rocks once he splashed down. He said there is a little memorial to all the people who died at that sight over the decades. Marines are crazy. And that’s why they’re awesome.

Chaplain O’Bannon gave me some stats on the tonnage of material, mostly donated by American companies, to be delivered throughout these four months and six nations:

  • 4 endoscopy units
  • 300,000 high-nutrition meals specially designed to undo the effects of malnutrition
  • 2 sonogram machines
  • multiple EKGs
  • defibrillators
  • Tylenol products
  • loads of miscellaneous medical supplies, e.g. bandages, medical furniture, crutches, braces, etc.
  • textbooks — math, science, Spanish, and English
  • schools supplies — pens, pencils, notebooks
  • teddy bears
  • soccer balls and basketballs

All of that, of course, is in addition to the doctors, dentists, veterinarians, dental hygienists, nurses and other health specialists from the U.S. Navy, Air Force, and Army, along with doctors from Canada, Brazil, and the Netherlands who are delivering the care. Sure the Dutch doctor is a bit out of place, but this truly is an effort at Partnership of the Americas.