Marines Tapped to Aid Papua New Guinea in Wake of Volcanic Activity

A U.S. Marine observes a target strike during a combined joint exercise
A U.S. Marine with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit observes a target strike during a combined joint live-fire exercise event on Townshend Island, Australia, July 23, 2023. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Abigail Godinez)

Marines are preparing to assist Papua New Guinea with humanitarian aid after an active volcano erupted on the eastern island of Bougainville last month, has learned.

Adm. John Aquilino, chief of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, ordered troops with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, along with the America Amphibious Ready Group, to the Pacific island after Mount Bagana -- one of the country's most active volcanoes -- spewed ash and noxious gas in July, impacting more than 12,000 people, according to a U.S. official.

Thousands of people have been evacuated to shelters. Chargé d'Affaires, a.i. Joseph Zadrozny determined the island was experiencing "significant unmet humanitarian need" in the lead-up to the order, the official said.

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The request for humanitarian assistance comes just two weeks after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Papua New Guinea during a sprawling trip across the Indo-Pacific. The late summer tour was meant to bolster ties with Pacific nations as the U.S. looks to check China's influence in the region.

For Papua New Guinea, this was the first time a U.S. defense secretary had visited the country. During the visit, Prime Minister James Marape lauded the Defense Cooperation Agreement -- a yet-unratified security pact that would allow the U.S. broad military and economic access to the region for 15 years.

In the aftermath of the volcano, the government of Papua New Guinea requested military assistance on Aug. 1, according to the U.S. official. The call asked for personnel with disaster response, search and rescue, medical and logistics backgrounds. It appears the order to ready troops was sent the next day.

Military personnel were expected to arrive at Port Moresby on Wednesday. Nearly 600 miles to the northeast, Mount Bagana emitted ashfall that has "contaminated water sources and damaged food gardens, leading to dysentery, skin and eye irritation, as well as elevated the needs for food, health, and [sanitation] assistance among affected populations," the U.S. official said. asked the Marine Corps how many troops would be assigned to the mission. The service did not confirm by deadline.

For Marines, the "be prepared to" request is just one of many Pacific operations the service has taken up in the last few months. On Tuesday, Marines and sailors who assisted the Philippines in the wake of a super typhoon were expected to depart for home.

Marines with the 31st MEU, the Okinawa-based unit at the ready for the Papua New Guinea mission, completed a joint exercise with the Australian military called Talisman Sabre this week.

The official alluded to what could be a challenging mission for those Marines in Papua New Guinea.

"Torokina is only accessible by air or sea," according to the U.S. official, referencing a district that is more than 500 miles away from where the MEU is expected to land Wednesday, "further challenging the delivery of essential relief supplies."

Mount Bagana exudes several thousand tons of noxious pollutants per day and has been erupting "non-stop" since the 19th century, according to NASA's Earth Observatory. The volcano erupted twice in early and mid-July, the official said.

The official also said that the Rabaul Volcano Observatory in Papua New Guinea issued its second-highest alert shortly after the eruptions, though it later downgraded the alert.

The most affected districts -- Torokina and Wakunai -- are located on the autonomous eastern island of Bougainville. The island's capital, Buka, is the "center of relief operations," according to the U.S. official.

-- Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @df_lawrence.

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