By SOF Editor on Fri, 01/29/2010 - 11:06am
On Jan. 14, two days after a magnitude 7 earthquake shook Haiti, an international team of naval officers and associated partners was on board the USS Gunston Hall in Norfolk, Va.
The ship was fully loaded with food for a maritime security exercise in sub-Saharan Africa when Navy Capt. Cynthia Thebaud, commander of Destroyer Squadron 60, received a call to head to Haiti.
“I don't think you could find a ship that has a better composition of people and things on board for this type of mission,” Thebaud said during a Jan. 27 “DoDLive” bloggers roundtable.
Among the European and African partners on board the ship and taking part in the roundtable chat were Nigerian Navy Capt. Jimi Osinowo, Ghana Navy Lt. Cmdr. Samuel Ayelezono, Italian Navy Lt. Cmdr. Marco Campasso, U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Tim Labenz and Senegal Navy Lt. Assane Seye.
The Haitian people, still in shock from the devastation caused by the earthquake, were reassured in seeing people of similar culture and background involved in the relief mission, Thebaud said.
“Language played a very important role in our contribution here, Ayelezono added. “Most of our crew can speak French - particularly [useful in dealing] with the local community. And they felt very confident in relating with us, and it proved very helpful.”
For example, immediately after Gunston Hall’s arrival at Haiti’s Killick coast guard base on Jan. 18, the whole crew pitched-in to turn a rubble-strewn soccer field into an impromptu helicopter landing zone for a Honduran medical evacuation team. Meanwhile, Ayelezono was able to collect information to document the identities of some 400 patients in need of critical care before they were separated from family and flown away.
The team provided other support in concert with the U.S. and Haiti coast guards, United Nations’ forces, and Honduran, Sri Lankan, Mexican and nonprofit group representatives, including some from the World Food Program. Thebaud said that $20,000 worth of medical supplies on board for the original mission in Africa enhanced treatment provided by first responders on the scene.
And, she said, the logistical know-how of her staff helped to unite the many ad hoc officials and local volunteers into an organized and effective relief group.
“If somebody comes in and is initially assessed on the level of treatment they need, if it's an emergency surgery case, we would get them straight in to see the doctors right away,” Thebaud said. “If it was initial triage, if they needed a greater medical assessment, … we are able to get tents into the base and set up to help keep the patients out of the sun [and] give the patients’ families a place to stay.”
Thebaud said she has been thoroughly impressed by the cooperative effort by all parties and by the public in need of assistance. Though some media reports have described mob reactions to food distribution, she said she didn’t see anything like that.
“I think it's a credit to the Haitian coast guard, the Haitian police, and to the integrated team ashore that we have not had any problems at the gates to the coast guard base,” Thebaud said.
In response to a request from the government of Mexico, Thebaud’s crew has been offloading food from Mexican ships.
“Almost as quickly as we get things ashore, there are people ready to take them out and distribute them into communities in need of assistance,” she said.
Each of the international African Partnership Station members who took part in the roundtable discussion said they had witnessed unforgettable, inspiring moments amid the enormous tragedy in Haiti. In many cases, they said, they saw unexpected help arrive just in time to save lives.
Thebaud added that the name of the U.S. military relief mission in Haiti, Operation Unified Response, is apt.
“So there really is an international team effort all pulling together for one common goal,” she said. “This is not business as usual. We are consistently working creatively and pulling out all the stops to figure out how we can best get the job done together.”