Angels of Mercy: The United States Navy
Thirty days after the Kashmir Earthquake hit the isolated, mountainous region of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, an injured man hobbled into a U.S. disaster relief hospital near Muzaffarabad, approximately 12 miles from the quake’s epicenter. He had followed the “Angels of Mercy,” the local Pakistani-nicknamed U.S. Navy helicopters (helos) that were making countless runs every day, day after day, to airlift food, medicine and supplies while shuttling people back and forth to safety. “Somehow he got down off the mountainside, hobbled in and walked past all the other hospitals in order to get to us. This guy had a compound fracture in his leg for 30 days. Our docs looked at it and couldn’t believe it; they had never seen anything like it. They immediately took him into surgery, and they were there for hours just trying to cleanse his bones. He made it, thank God,: said Rear Admiral Michael A. LeFever, Commander of Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG) 1 and Commander of the Disaster Assistance Center, Pakistan.
The Kashmir Earthquake occurred on Oct. 8, 2005 and registered 7.6 on the Richter scale. It claimed the lives of more than 75,000 men, women and children while leaving another 100,000 injured and 3.5 million homeless in one of the most isolated and desolate areas of Pakistan. “I was there with my group within 48 hours after the earthquake hit. We worked as one team with USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) and other U.S. agencies, under the auspices of the U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, to provide American support. We flew in a Level 2 hospital with medical capabilities, surgical suites, etc. We landed and worked with the government of Pakistan to provide food, supplies and medical assistance right off the bat and then immediately surged in another self-sustaining land-based hospital and 125 engineers from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 74 (Seabees) who immediately cleared roads, set up shelters and built schools,” LeFever explained.
Prior to the earthquake, more than 80 Pakistani healthcare facilities existed in this area; however, the event destroyed all but two, and they could barely operate. The villagers weren’t used to the quality and scope of American medical care: “I brought in the last MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals) — the 212, similar to the one from the TV show — and we turned that over as part of the operation. And I also brought in a Navy Marine Corps hospital from Okinawa. We had 2 surgical suites, 24 intensive-care-unit beds, 36 medical-surgical beds and 60 medium-to-minimal-care beds. I just pulled up a ‘Boston General’ hospital and put it in an area where they had no medical facilities even close to this,” continued LeFever.
According to estimates, the U.S. Navy’s relief and follow-up efforts saved 1/2 million lives when factoring in the effect of winter’s ravages. Even without a natural disaster, thousands of people die every winter in this harsh and isolated region. And in 2005 winter came very early. “Because the quake was in a very mountainous region, without the helo lift we provided, there would have been no way for medical or shelters to get into the region. Not only was it the medical — because we had medical cases of earthquake-related injuries for about the first month — but then we had primary care. And then we proceeded to do outreach and immunization. My thought was ‘Oh, my goodness, first snowstorm . . . People will be without homes and freezing to death,’” remembered LeFever. But thanks to the Seabees’ home building and generous international donations of shelters, as well as to the completion of all immunizations, the mortality rate was below anything the region had ever experienced. The combined effort was a huge success.
In addition, the work of the Seabees, along with the Pakistani government and other international organizations, in providing clean water and proper sanitation helped to avert disease outbreaks in refugee camps, where thousands of people were living. According to LeFever, the sanitation, immunizations and healthcare averted outbreaks of cholera. “To be a part of that life-saving experience was incredible. For me, it was personally and professionally the most rewarding experience of my life,” the Rear Admiral remembered, his voice choked with emotion.
Ironically, many of the same Seabees who had experienced devastating personal loss as a result of Hurricane Katrina were on hand to support Pakistanis in their time of great personal loss. “The same Sailors who lost their homes in Katrina were later deployed in Okinawa. When the Pakistan earthquake happened two months later, we called them up and sent them right near the epicenter. So these same young guys and gals who lost their homes were rebuilding homes for the Pakistanis. And here our Sailors were reliving the environment that they just left in Katrina — a fact that was favorably reported in the Pakistani press. It was very emotional,” recounted LeFever.
Moreover, the U.S military sent in Army helicopters from all over the world for heavy lift because of the high altitudes of the Himalayas and Hindu Kush Karakoram Range. Some of these military personnel were literally being shot at the day before in Afghanistan. “They flew through the Khyber Pass, and the next day these same crews were shuttling medical supplies and personnel up to the area and medevacing people back to Islamabad. This demonstrates the remarkable ability of our military men and women to be in combat one day and then to immediately provide life-saving humanitarian relief the next day,” beamed LeFever proudly.
Although the Navy was participating in a humanitarian mission, the environment was potentially hostile. “This was one of the things that I took into consideration as Commander — risk of force, risk to mission. We were on a humanitarian mission, and you can’t do humanitarian assistance with a helmet, gun and body armor. We just watched where we went,” recalled the Rear Admiral. LeFever elaborated by saying that there was never a concern about Pakistanis in the areas where they concentrated their relief effort. He explained: “They knew we were there to help so it was almost a pact. In other words, they took care of us; they made sure nothing happened to us. It was just incredible . . . Here were our Seabees up in a village trying to fix a collapsed building while the local people were scrambling through the debris of their lost homes and possessions. All of a sudden, they would walk off and, within 20-30 minutes, come back with some food and some tea prepared for the Seabees in an effort to show their appreciation. It was amazing. . . ”
Both Rear Admiral LeFever and Vice Admiral Michael K. Loose, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Fleet Readiness and Logistics, agree that the U.S. Navy’s humanitarian missions’ “leave-behind” has the greatest impact on the local people. “Whether it was in the Indonesian Tsunami or the Pakistan earthquake, every Sailor who had a capability applied it. Think of the image that it leaves of Americans. So now the key part is that a year or two later this gigantic U.S. Navy hospital ship comes back and says ‘Knock, knock. We’re here. Who wants medical and dental?’ All of a sudden there are people crowding the gangway. In the meantime, we send Seabees forward to say ‘Let us help you with your schools, community centers, government buildings and basic utility services. How about getting more wells in here for your families, livestock and crops? What about better sanitation?’ So, all of a sudden, it’s ‘Wow! This is the U.S. Navy!’” said Loose.
The U.S. Navy/Marine Corps team is often the American government’s first responder because it’s a global, forward deployed force, around the world everyday, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Its “911” capability is enhanced by its strategic airlift, strategic sealift and ground capability. LeFever explained, “The U.S. Navy/Marine Corps team is like the ‘911’ guy. Because we’re forward deployed all around the world, we’re able to respond and to provide that immediate ‘triage.’ This is about relationships and relationship building, and this is about trust that you build over time. Because, as the Navy’s Maritime Strategy states, ‘Trust can’t be surged.’”
Vice Admiral Loose continued: “So when you do dial 911 and need us to respond, the Navy/Marine Corps team is ready, scalable and task-organized. Put a guy like Mike LeFever on the ground, and he immediately says ‘This is what I need: platforms, ships, a hospital ship, 25 helos, some SatCom (satellite communications) and a bulldozer to clear the airport runway.’ And another thing: We have our ‘Seabees,’ who are skilled construction workers — utilitiesmen, engineering aides, electricians, mechanics, builders, steelworkers, equipment operators. It’s like going to the union hall and saying ‘Give me 10 carpenters, 10 steelworkers and 5 front-end loaders; and I need them in 10 minutes.’ We can do that. We’ll complete the job quickly and then extract ourselves out. But the most important thing we’re finding is that we need to come back in the future to build lasting relationships. In other words, we’re like the ‘shining knight’ on the white horse. However, that’s not enough if you never see us again, because you can’t surge trust, respect and friendship. The same thing is true once you build it.”
The Navy makes sure the “fires of friendship” continue to burn brightly thanks to the dedicated hospital ships USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort. Loose explained: “Our hospital ships, Mercy and Comfort, have really created an opportunity for us because they’re unobtrusive and neutral. They’re all about compassion. We really want to offer humanitarian assistance because when you look at human compassion on a global scale, this is an opportunity for us to step up to the plate. When called upon, our goal is to act quickly and in a big way because it’s a matter of lives.”
Loose notes that the U.S. Navy is forward deployed for a number of reasons: global security, peace, stability and economic growth, in addition to America’s defense and national security. “We’re constantly focused on two things: One, if we have a war, we’ll do everything we can to win quickly and decisively because our sons and daughters are at stake, as well as America’s freedom and security. Two, Americans don’t want wars. So we need to concentrate on deterrence — in other words, preventing wars and conflicts — which is why we’re out and about every day, all over the globe.
”What happens if a foreign country has a disaster and the American military responds immediately with far-reaching, humanitarian relief? All of a sudden the relief recipients say “Wait a minute, the Americans answered the bell and made a dramatic difference.” And from our participating Sailors’ perspective, this is the ultimate experience. They’ll remember their contribution to humanity for the rest of their lives. You get the picture just by watching Mike LeFever recount his time in Pakistan,” Loose continued.
LeFever agrees with Loose and believes that the Navy’s mission of caring is a viable war fighting strategy, as well as a key formula for global stability, peace, freedom and growth. LeFever explained: “Because of our humanitarian involvement in other countries, we give people choices. I’ll be frank: When we were in Pakistan, terrorist-sponsored organizations were there. We were around the corner from them providing our services without hooks, and the Pakistani people realized that. Some of the terrorist-funded groups brought in some wonderful capabilities as well, in vans and vehicles, vying for that same 'product” — the hearts and minds of the people. Our concern, of course, was the future of these organizations and their hold on that area. That’s one of the reasons why American humanitarian aid is so important. It has a powerful impact on people, on relationships and on understanding what America is all about. We’re in Partnerships for Peace with our ships all over the world — in the Sudan, the West Coast of Africa, the Pacific, South America and in other countries. This type of engagement is now part of our normal routine.”
Loose is very proud of the Navy and its commitment not only to America but also to the rest of world. He summarized: “We’re very proud that we’re forward deployed. We’re out there every minute of the day, and we’re in the ready position at all times. We need to be out and about, and we need to be focused on the humanitarian compassion side as much as the warfighter side in order to build better relationships and trust around the world.
“Why does America care? I believe it really boils down to the human side of being an American. We’re a country with many blessings; and, we’re willing to share those blessings, as well as our time and our passion. We worry about other people and their welfare. The other thing is that within the Navy, as well as for other military services, you’re immediately taught selfless service — in other words, to put others ahead of yourself — and to rely upon each other. So this is the ultimate experience, I think, to take an American Sailor and say 'Guess what? We’re going into Pakistan tomorrow. You’re going to leverage and force-multiply all your skills, discipline and capabilities and stretch them to your limits to save lives and to help fellow human beings.’
“If you really have a problem or need help, Americans are the kind of people who’ll show up and make a big difference. We want people around the world to understand what we’re all about, which is exactly what happened in Pakistan and Indonesia. And that’s the goal the U.S. Navy is working hard to accomplish with its Maritime Strategy. We’re much more than ships, submarines and aircraft. Our number one seller is never our equipment. All we need to do is let a Navy Sailor, guy or gal, go out and show people who they are; and it’s “Wow! That’s what America is all about,’” concluded the 3-star Admiral, proud to be a Sailor, with a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face.Issue No. 4, 2008
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