Operation Continuing Promise

I had a very interesting and unusual week this week (and it precluded me posting here). As a member of the DoD Blogger’s Roundtable, I was offered an opportunity which, frankly, I couldn’t refuse.

Tuesday evening I boarded the USS Kearsarge, a Wasp class Amphibious Assault ship based in Norfolk VA. As you can imagine, the Kearsarge, commanded by Capt. Walt Towns, is a real, no-kidding, you’d-recognize-it-anywhere Navy warship.
I was given the opportunity, if I wanted too, to do the entire 4 month deployment they were going on, but, unfortunately don’t have the time to do that, so I opted to take a short hop on it from Norfolk to Miami, where I experienced a first for myself – that being flown by helicopter off the deck of a Navy warship while the ship was underway. They helicoptered us into Miami to catch an airplane home.

Needless to say I had a fantastic time on the ship, and learned more than you can imagine about amphibious assault ships. For instance, the Kearsarge and others of its class carry a crew of about 1,100. They can also carry about 2,000 Marines. The ship, when fully combat loaded is about 44,000 tons. The best way to describe how it looks is a smaller version of an aircraft carrier. It has a flight deck that runs its entire 800 foot length, with an island to the side that contains both flight control and the bridge.
When they’re deploying with a Marine MEU, they’ll carry amtracks in the hold and when making an amphibious assault on a hostile shore, the “well” – a huge are near the rear of the ship and below the flight deck – is flooded, the amtracks, loaded with Marines, move down the ramp and into the well, where they’re floated and move out of the ship and toward shore.

Its defenses include two RAM launchers which is a lightweight, quick-reaction, fire-and-forget missile designed to destroy anti-ship missiles and asymmetric air and surface threats; two NATO Sea Sparrow launchers. Sea Sparrow is an all-weather surface-to-air and air-to-air missile with all-altitude operational capability that can attack high-performance aircraft and missiles from any direction; three 20mm Phalanx CIWS mounts which provide a “last-chance” defense against anti-ship missiles and littoral warfare threats that have penetrated other fleet defenses. Phalanx automatically detects, tracks and engages anti-air warfare threats such as anti-ship missiles and aircraft; and finally, 4 .50cal machine guns and 4 25 mm Mk 38 machine guns for defense against both airborne and seaborn close-in threats.

Air support comes in various flavors. Three MI 60S Seahawk helicopters act as Search and Rescue birds and also execute long-range Medevac missions. A detachment of 4 CH-53E Sea Stallion heavy lift helicopters is also on board. There are also 12 CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters; 6 AV-8B Harrier attack aircraft and 4 AH-1Z Super Cobra attack helicopters. All are flown by Marine Corps pilots. The CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters are now being phased out of the inventory and replaced by the V-22 Osprey VTOL tilt-rotor aircraft.

The Kearsarge can move along at a pretty impressive clip, about 25 knots when at flank speed. That’s because she has two boilers which help generate enough steam to push two geared steam turbines and two shafts at about 70,000 total shaft horsepower. All the steam she generates also allows her to produce 100,000 gallons of fresh water a day.

And in support of the Marines she carries to war, the Kearsarge has a huge medical capability. In her medical spaces she has a 14 bed ICU and a 43 bed ward. Her medical staff is capable of supporting up to 600 patients as well as the crew of the ship.

She is a formidable piece of war machinery with equally formidable capabilities.
Yet on this particular voyage, she’s not only committed peace, she’s also committed to humanitarian work within countries bordering the Caribbean in Central and South America.

On board, right now, steaming toward the mosquito coast of Nicaragua, she’s carrying a volunteer medical contingent from among US military as well as allied medical personnel commanded by Commander David Damstra. There are doctors and nurses from the Airforce, Navy, Marines, Army, Coast Guard and the US Public Health Service as well as from Brazil, Canada and the Netherlands. In all 260 medical personnel from both the military and non-governmental organizations such as Operation Smile and Project Hope will see and treat patients in Nicaragua, Columbia, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Trinidad and Guyana. In all, 22 medical sites will be set up and treat the indigenous people in cooperation and at the behest of the national government.

If you’re unfamiliar with Project Smile, which is a non-governmental organization, you have probably seen the advertisements which show young children with facial deformities such as cleft lip and cleft palate.

That is one of the NGOs partnering with the Navy and those children will be cared for during their stops in the various countries. Where operating facilities are available on shore, they’ll be done there, but where they aren’t available, the children will be brought on board the Kearsarge, the surgery done there and they will be kept overnight. And trust me, they’ll be pampered by the nurses and corpsmen on board.

As one NGO told me, what the Kearsarge’s facilities do is allow them to reach areas that previously were unreachable. Patients who would have had to forego beneficial treatment without the Kearsarge can now be treated. They will be flown aboard, operated upon, kept overnight to insure all is well and then flown back to their home. A cleft lip takes about 45 minutes to repair. A cleft palate takes about an hour and a half. The change in the child’s life is both dramatic and forever.

In addition to the medical effort, loaded on the Kearsarge were about 60 engineers. 40 from the Airforce and 20 from the famed Navy Seabees. And while the doctors and nurses are treating patients and changing their lives, the engineers will also be changing lives. The engineering contingent is commanded by Airforce Major Tom Defazio and Navy CW3 David Joiner. What they’ll be doing is equally amazing. They’ll be building schools and playgrounds at 23 sites in those countries I mentioned.

Right now, on board, they’re prefabricating a lot of what they’ll do. But in essence what they will do is move into an area for about 2 weeks set up a base camp and then satellite out to the more remote sites. Navy air, to include the heavy lift CH-53E helicopters commanded by LTC Will Bentley, will be helping them move the construction material and equipment to those sites as well.

Once on site, they will build “seahuts”, which are standard semi-permanent 16 x 32 plywood structures with a floor and a corrugated roof and wired for lighting. It takes about 210 mandays per hut to build. In many places they’ll be building multiple seahuts and joining them. One of those places is Los Altos Columbia, where fire destroyed their school some time ago. During the briefing about the engineering missions, I was shown a picture of a number of very young children there holding a sign in Spanish asking for help in getting a new school. Now they meet wherever they can, so what will happen for them in the next few months will be a God send. They engineers will build 4 seahuts in an “L” shaped configuration which will become the new Los Altos school.

The overall umbrella operation is called Continuing Promise. It is an operation that will continue in various forms in the future. It is a tremendous and praiseworthy effort that I think needs to be given the visibility it richly deserves.

But there is an irony here you can’t escape. And it has to do with a warship on a humanitarian mission. On the surface, it doesn’t seem to be a fit. But when you dig into it a little you realize that the Kearsarge is a perfect instrument for this sort of work, but not for the reason you might think.

Because she was built to carry United States Marines to war and support them, she has the hospital facilities necessary to treat children and change their lives forever.

Because she was built to carry United States Marines to war and support them, she has the equipment such as Landing Craft and heavy lift helicopters, to move construction materials and equipment to build instead of destroy.

Because she was built to carry United States Marines to war and support them, she provides a platform for humanitarian non-governmental organizations to reach areas in need that they never previously were able to reach.

Because she was built to carry United States Marines to war and support them, she is superbly capable of providing the humanitarian care so many in the developing world so badly need and perhaps, by doing so, she may not have to carry those Marines to war as often as they might otherwise have to go.

That is the hope of Operation Continuing Promise, and that is why it is both an important and worthwhile mission.

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