USNS Mercy Heads Home From Humanitarian Mission

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WASHINGTON – When the crew of USNS Mercy arrives Sept. 14 at their home port of San Diego after their five-month Pacific Partnership mission, some might be tempted to let the numbers alone speak for the success of the largest annual humanitarian civic assistance mission in the Asia-Pacific region.

With the Military Sealift Command hospital ship as their lead platform during visits to Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Cambodia, they conducted more than 900 surgeries, evaluated and treated more than 49,000 people and provided more than 7,000 veterinary services.

Traveling more than 20,000 nautical miles -- the equivalent of a trip around the equator -- they built or refurbished 13 schools and health clinics. They participated in more than 100 community service projects, including delivery of almost 140,000 pounds of supplies requested by the host nations.

But Navy Capt James Morgan, the mission commander, said numbers alone fail to capture the magnitude of what the 1,200-member crew, with representatives from the U.S. military, four U.S. agencies, 13 partner nations and 28 nongovernmental organizations, accomplished during Pacific Partnership 2012.

“What stands out the most for me is just how well so many people came together to accomplish this mission over four different ports -- from the planning to the execution to the wrap-up,” Morgan told American Forces Press Service as Mercy transited home from its final port call in Hawaii.

“This mission demonstrated the ability of all those people to work together, not just on a planned mission, but if anything ever happens that would require us to work together again,” he said. “We have built those relationships, and I think everybody takes away a clear understanding of how much we can get done, working together toward common goals.”

U.S. Pacific Command, operating through U.S. Pacific Fleet, launched the Pacific Partnership initiative in 2006 after a devastating tsunami struck the region in December 2004. Since then, the annual mission has focused on reinforcing relationships formed through the tsunami response and laying groundwork to ensure future preparedness.

The idea, Morgan explained, is to “prepare in calm to respond in crisis,” building trust and establishing the relationships that would enhance the ability of the United States, host nations, partner nations and NGOs to respond together to natural disasters or other crises.

So the real success of this year’s mission, he said, can best be gauged through what’s been left behind, particularly through subject-matter expert exchanges between governments, militaries and NGOs in areas of public health, civil engineering and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

Morgan recognized the highlights of the two-week visits to each host nation.

In Indonesia, for example, the crew fanned out to provide services not only in Manado, but also on the remote islands of Sangihe, Talaud and Siau.

“If we were to actually respond to a no-kidding situation under those kinds of conditions, that is exactly how we would operate. We would move among the islands and we would bring the same people together,” Morgan said. “So my biggest takeaway was how well we came together under very complex situations, with very complex maneuvering among four different islands over 15 days to accomplish what we did.”

In the Philippines, Morgan said, he was impressed by how much the host nation embraced the opportunity to improve its humanitarian assistance and disaster relief response capabilities and readiness. While reinforcing their ability to respond to crises in their own country -- from torrential rains and flooding to the recent earthquake -- they also strengthened their ability to help regional neighbors, if needed.

As a demonstration of that willingness, Filipino doctors joined the Pacific Partnership crew during subsequent visits to Vietnam and Cambodia.

Mercy’s visit to Vietnam featured an exciting first for the mission as medical teams operated off the ship, side by side with their Vietnamese counterparts, Morgan said.

And in Cambodia, the crew fanned out from the port at Sihanoukville, providing medical and dental care in remote and underserved parts of the Phnom Penh, Koh Kang and Kampot provinces. “We were able to push out, well away from where the Mercy was, to areas that we had never reached before,” Morgan said. “What we were able to accomplish, so far away from Mercy, I thought was pretty standard-setting.”

Navy Capt. (Dr.) Timothy Hinman, commanding officer of Mercy’s medical treatment facility, called the medical subject-matter exchanges a highlight of the mission. With more than 60,000 contact hours -- from larger-scale symposiums and conferences to more individualized hands-on training -- the Pacific Partnership medical crew helped the host nations increase their own medical and disaster-response capacity, he said.

As the U.S., partner-nation, NGO and host-nation medical teams came together to provide medical services in remote and underserved areas, they gained better understanding of and appreciation for what each other bring to the table, he said.

“We talk about ‘health diplomacy,’ and I think this is an example of it, because the language of medicine transcends our cultural differences and barriers,” Hinman said. “That made it an enriching and rewarding mission for everybody who participated.”

Particularly memorable during the mission, he said, was the opportunity for Pacific Partnership’s medical teams to perform operations ashore, alongside their counterparts from Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia. “This is a major step for us,” Hinman said. “The ability for our surgeons to work side-by-side, collaboratively with the host-nation surgeons gives you a totally different aspect of building a relationship.”

Dr. Helle Hydeskov, a veterinarian from Denmark, served as team lead for the World Vets, an organization that worked with Army veterinarians and tailored their treatments and training to what the host nation requested.

The focus -- whether in helping a country get a rabies problem under control or deal with a livestock issue -- was to leave behind something enduring. “Because of the short time that we were in a country, the best thing we could do was to teach them how to handle it themselves when we leave,” she said.

Hydeskov, who served aboard Mercy’s sister ship, USNS Comfort, during U.S. Southern Command’s Continuing Promise mission last year, said she jumped at the chance to participate in Pacific Partnership 2012.

“Even though the military plans these missions, everybody works together as equals, so it is a great opportunity for the volunteers to take part in,” she said. “Nowhere else in the world can you get anything close to this experience -- to get to travel the world and see the different cultures and work as a veterinarian at the same time.”

Anticipating Mercy’s arrival tomorrow in San Diego, where its crew will participate in Fleet Week activities, Morgan said Pacific Partnership stands as a testament to the U.S. commitment to the Asia-Pacific region.

“It emphasizes the importance of not only our military ties, but also our humanitarian civic-action ties that bring us all together,” he said. “It demonstrates a commitment to the region, a commitment to partnership-building and a commitment to working together toward common goals.”

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