VAVA’U, Tonga – The Pacific Partnership 2011 team departed Vava’u, Tonga aboard amphibious transport dock ship USS Cleveland (LPD 7) April 23 after 11 days of working side-by-side with the people of Tonga.
Joined by USCGC Jarvis (WHEC 725) and HMNZS Canterbury (L 421), Cleveland arrived in Tongan waters, surrounded by a rainbow, and equipped with civilian volunteers and military representatives from all of the U.S. services, as well as military personnel from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Singapore.
The diverse crew didn’t come to Tonga just to provide aid. They also came to develop their Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response (HA/DR) skills and to learn from the Tongans. By working across services, nations and cultures, the Pacific Partnership team was able to enhance their ability to work as a unified team. They also helped the Tongans develop sustainable improvements in their quality of life and quality of service.
“We are very grateful to the people of Tonga for providing us an opportunity to improve our interoperability in HA/DR,” said Capt. Jesse Wilson, Pacific Partnership 2011 mission commander and Commander, Destroyer Squadron 23. “Recent events in the region like the Queensland floods in Australia, the Christchurch earthquake in New Zealand, and the earthquake and tsunami that impacted Japan, demonstrate the importance of multi-national humanitarian relief missions like Pacific Partnership.”
Tonga is no stranger to natural disasters. In 2009, the Tongan island, Niuatoputapu was hit by a tsunami that killed 10 people and left hundreds of people injured, homeless or in need of major repairs to their homes.
This year, military personnel and civilian volunteers were provided an opportunity to work with the people of Tonga, engage in dialogue and offer assistance through medical, dental, veterinary and engineering projects (MEDCAP, DENTCAP, VETCAP, ENCAP). The team also hosted a HA/DR conference that was attended by local officials and community leaders.
“In accordance with the Maritime Strategy,” said Cmdr. Steven Gabele “we have to be responsive to the HA/DR mission, and that means working in a variety of conditions, planning for contingencies, improvising where we must, listening to the local subject matter experts, and communicating in a joint environment. The collaborative effort between countries and across services, even in and out of the military, was absolutely crucial to our level of success here in Tonga.”
From tooth extractions to neutering pets, the practitioners of the healing arts had an opportunity to engage with Tongans, learn from them, and provide assistance.
“I’m really glad I had an opportunity to come do this,” said Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Esther Sayers. “Working at the MEDCAP let me meet these wonderful people, treat their kids, and get a real sense that I’m doing some good out in the world.”
In any HA/DR environment, there are multiple issues responders and survivors must face. While the hurt and injured must receive care for their wounds and illnesses, there is also a need to rebuild. Public resources like schools, government offices, and roads also experience damage from natural and man-made disasters.
“When we respond to a HA/DR crisis situation, we can bring people, equipment and tools to help support the people who are rebuilding their homes, but we do have to rely on the local population for an awareness of their engineering needs, supplies, and most importantly, how to adjust our methods to the environment,” said Lt. Michael Sardone, officer in charge of engineering services for Pacific Partnership 2011. “By listening to the local population, we can find out what they need and we can build things that can stand up to the natural disasters we can’t predict.”
Sardone also pointed out the value of engaging with other services and nations when working on the ENCAPs.
“Having Partner and Host Nation Engineers working alongside us was really valuable,” he said. “First, having the additional personnel gave us the flexibility to complete larger and more complex projects. Second, working together gave us time to learn different approaches to completing these projects – an invaluable lesson for future engineering activities. Finally, Host Nation personnel greatly increased our success by knowing exactly what the local community needed; without their support and guidance, we would have not accomplished our mission.”
HA/DR environments may very well bring out the best in people during the worst situations. Even when they work long hours healing the sick and injured, rebuilding what has become broken, and giving pets and livestock the care they need, the men and women of Pacific Partnership still go out to do a little more.
“Community service projects are a key part of any mission like Pacific Partnership,” said Lt. Philip Ridley, Pacific Partnership 2011 chaplain. “The Navy’s forward presence means that every port we pull into is like our community. We give a real meaning to the idea that we are citizens of the world as well as the United States, and I think we showed the people of Tonga that being ‘A Global Force for Good’ isn’t something we just like to say about ourselves; it’s something we try to do everywhere we go.”
In 11 days, the multinational and multi-service Pacific Partnership team engaged local leaders, treated 3,806 patients, 819 of which were children, cared for 163 animals, completed seven engineering projects, including school buildings, bathrooms and a water catchment system, and engaged in several community service projects.
“When I spoke with the Honorable Fotu, a revered chief in Vava’u, ” Wilson said, “he told me that the island of Vava’u has a nickname of Fata Fata Mana, which means ‘Warm Heart Island.’ The people living here proved to me that they deserve that honor. I am truly grateful for this opportunity.”
Pacific Partnership is an annual humanitarian assistance mission sponsored by U.S. Pacific Fleet. This year, Pacific Partnership has completed its mission in Tonga, and will continue in Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste and the Federated States of Micronesia.
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