Saturday, January 16, 2010

Military Makes Initial Assessments in Haiti, Mullen Says

By Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 15, 2010 - As U.S. military forces work to provide initial relief to Haiti in the wake of a massive Jan. 12 earthquake there, it's difficult to say how long that support will last, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said today.

U.S. troops are in the first 24 hours of operations there now and are just beginning to assess the overall situation, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen said in a Pentagon Channel interview.

Today, those military members are assessing the extent of the damage, the supplies and services needed and where the immediate efforts should focus, Mullen said.

"As we get through that initial stage -- and it's difficult to know how long that'll take, but lets say for the next few days -- I think in that time frame we'll assess what the longer-term impact will be and what additional support needs to be there and sustained over time," he said.

Immediate efforts so far are focusing on search and rescue and saving lives. Providing basic needs, such as food, water, medical care and security are priorities as well, the admiral added.

"The damage is extensive," he said. "Certainly, the early estimates of the lives lost are in the tens of thousands. So at this point, it clearly looks like it will be extensive support from a lot of countries, not the least of which is ours, for a significant length of time."

But what's certain, the chairman said, is that America's armed forces bring much experience and expertise to the table. He noted U.S. military humanitarian efforts in the wake of a Pakistan earthquake in 2008 and in response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The U.S. military brings organizational structure, sustainment capabilities and a variety of other assets in terms of security, transportation, coordination and communication. The military also has extensive experience working in partnership with relief agencies and organizations, he added.

"Tragically, we've had considerable amounts of experience responding to natural disasters," he said. "So we have an experience base in our military that's put us in pretty good shape to respond. Most of all, what we bring is a significant part of the relief effort [to] try to make it as good as we possibly can for those who've suffered so much as rapidly as we can."

Despite the Defense Department's experiences, challenges still remain, he said.

Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, maintains the island nation's main sea and air ports. Mullen called the main port there "dysfunctional, and mostly destroyed." Making them manageable again is another main priority to transport supplies in and out of the country.

Commanders on the ground are exploring other ports on the island in the meantime, Mullen said. They're also working closely with the United Nations, which has led a successful security force there over the past several years, he added.

More than 1,000 servicemembers from all of the services and Coast Guard have been tapped so far to support the relief efforts. Ground forces such as Marines from the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit from Camp Lejeune, N.C., and paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team from Fort Bragg, N.C., are part of that effort.

Many of those units ordered to Haiti are part of the regular rotation of forces into Iraq and Afghanistan. The 22nd MEU returned only last month from a seven-month tour sailing the U.S. European Command and U.S. Central Command operational areas.

Mullen stressed that he doesn't believe the U.S. commitment in other parts of the world will be greatly affected by continued support in Haiti, as some might suggest.

"We clearly are involved in two conflicts overseas, and our force is under a lot of pressure," the admiral said. "Clearly, we've seen our Coast Guard, our Navy, as well as our Air Force respond rapidly, and we can sustain that kind of effort for a significant period of time.

"I'm confident, [the Haiti mission] will have an impact" he continued, "but I don't think it will be that severe, even given the other commitments that we have. "And after all, this is our own back yard. They're very close neighbors, and we have a long, committed relationship to this country, and I think it's one that we'll continue to focus on in terms of relief."

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