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SOUTHCOM Missions

Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief

One of SOUTHCOM’s operating principles is that providing humanitarian assistance such as health care, infrastructure improvements, and aid to underserved populations, as well as relief to people and communities suffering after a disaster, is key to enhancing security and stability in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The foundation of the command’s humanitarian assistance/disaster relief mission is the Humanitarian Assistance Program, designed to complement – but to neither duplicate nor replace – the work of other U.S. federal agencies.

The foundation of the command’s humanitarian assistance/disaster relief mission is the Humanitarian Assistance Program, designed to complement – but to neither duplicate nor replace – the work of other U.S. federal agencies. Generally, the program funds projects that enhance partner nations’ capacity to boost self-sufficiency, respond to disasters, and mitigate the risks of terrorist acts. These projects include the construction of disaster relief warehouses, emergency operations centers, shelters, and schools, as well as the provision of technical assistance. The results of these projects are diverse and widespread: They promote peace and stability, support the development of infrastructure necessary to achieve economic and social reforms, and improve the living conditions in impoverished regions.

Central American (CENTAM) Survey and Assessment Team (C-SAT)

The Central American (CENTAM) Survey and Assessment Team (C-SAT) and the Honduran Comisión Permanente de Contingencias look over a map of the affected area during a simulated hurricane disaster response exercise Porte Castilla, Honduras, May 15, 2013. The C-SAT team responds to natural disaster and humanitarian assistance notifications in the Central America region to conduct an assessment of the area before military forces are deployed. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Eric Donner

SOUTHCOM humanitarian assistance projects are designed to support both the U.S. Mission Strategic Resource Plan and the SOUTHCOM Theater Campaign Plan. The Humanitarian Assistance Program sends the message, consistent and sustained over time, that the governments of partner nations are capable of responding to crisis, and that SOUTHCOM is responsive to, and interested in, the well-being and humanitarian needs of people. A recent example was a SOUTHCOM Humanitarian Assistance Project grant, executed by the U.S. Embassy’s Military Liaison Office in Kingston, Jamaica, at the onset of the 2013 hurricane season. The grant, valued at about $1 million, provided the Jamaica Fire Brigade with rescue equipment – including self-contained breathing apparatus, portable lighting, helmets, chainsaws, shovels, and water rescue and flotation devices – that will be used to boost search and rescue operations in six Jamaica parishes.

SOUTHCOM also executes several annual exercises in which U.S. military personnel conduct deployment training while also providing substantial services and benefits to host nations, such as medical clinics, schools, wells, and community centers. These exercises may also include training in effective response to victims of storms, earthquakes, and other natural disasters. They include:

  • Operation Continuing Promise, an annual U.S. Navy-led deployment providing shipborne medical, dental, and veterinary care and engineering support. Due to sequestration-forced budget cuts, Continuing Promise 2013 was canceled, as the Navy announced in the spring that it would not be able to deploy the hospital ship that would serve as the exercise’s primary platform.
  • Operation Beyond the Horizon/New Horizons, a series of recurring SOUTHCOM-led operations involving active-duty, Reserve, and National Guard personnel from throughout the United States. Many of these operations are coordinated and led by SOUTHCOM’s main expeditionary organization, Joint Task Force-Bravo (JTF-Bravo), headquartered at Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras. From April to June 2013, for example, military personnel – specialists in engineering, construction, and health care – provided needed services to communities while receiving training and building relationships with partner nations.

In El Salvador, U.S. Army South’s Joint Task Force Jaguar led the effort to provide medical, dental, and veterinary care while building schools and making improvements in four rural communities. In Panama, Army and Air Force engineers built two clinic buildings, a dormitory, bathroom facilities, retaining walls, septic systems, and water towers, while expanding and repairing existing facilities. U.S. troops worked with professionals from Panama’s Health Ministry to provide specialized care to about 13,600 people in three of the nation’s poorest and most underserved provinces.

Likewise, New Horizons Belize, which ended on June 28, resulted in the construction of new classrooms at four different schools by U.S. service members and the Belize Defense Force. Over the exercise’s four months, U.S. and Canadian medical, dental, and veterinary professionals provided services to more than 15,000 people and 3,200 animals in nine locations throughout the country.

In addition to these broad, longer-term exercises, the command sponsors a series of shorter-term operations, including Medical Readiness Training Exercises (MEDRETEs), during which small teams of military medical professionals deploy for about two weeks to underserved areas in the region. These exercises – some of which are embedded in Beyond the Horizon/New Horizons exercises – typically provide care to more than 200,000 people every year. 2013 MEDRETEs included a Joint Task Force-Bravo partnership, in May, with the Honduran Ministry of Health and the Honduran military to bring medical services and education programs to more than 500 people in the remote mountain village of Cuesta de la Virgen. In late June, 109 volunteers from JTF-Bravo turned their bimonthly Chapel Hike into a supply mission, strapping on 40- to 80-pound packs and bringing food, supplies, toys, and hygiene products to 85 families in La Villa de Amatillo, a rural mountain community.

 

Foreign Disaster Relief

Every year, SOUTHCOM conducts numerous projects designed to increase disaster preparedness throughout its AOR, sponsoring exercises, seminars, and conferences to improve the collective abilities of the United States and its partner nations, under the leadership of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the federal government’s designated lead for international disaster response.

By the end of operations, U.S. military personnel had distributed 2.6 million liters of water, 17 million pounds of bulk food, 2.7 million Meals, Ready-to-Eat (MREs), and more than 149,000 pounds of medical supplies. U.S. military doctors treated 9,758 patients.

The command also supports the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA), an effort to increase disaster resilience and response capabilities among its 18 member nations. SOUTHCOM’s humanitarian assistance to CDEMA often involves the construction of an emergency operations center or disaster relief warehouse, or the pre-positioning of relief supplies.

These preparations also better position the command’s military forces to help a nation in the aftermath of a disaster. One of the most significant recent operations in its AOR – the largest disaster response mission in modern U.S. military history – was Operation Unified Response, launched after the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti in January 2010. SOUTHCOM personnel were among the first foreign responders on the scene, establishing Headquarters, Joint Task Force-Haiti in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 14 to conduct humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations in support of USAID and several NGOs. By Jan. 26, there were about 17,000 U.S. military personnel, from all branches of the military, in and around Haiti.

Elements of Operation Unified Response included flying in relief supplies; flying out evacuees (many of them medical evacuees taken aboard USNS Comfort, a Navy hospital ship anchored offshore); helicopter transport of supplies from the Port-au-Prince airport to various points nearby; supply airdrops from fixed-wing aircraft; aerial imagery from satellites and surveillance aircraft; the establishment of a field hospital near the capital’s international port; and repair of a pier at the port to enable maritime supply and evacuation. By the end of operations, U.S. military personnel had distributed 2.6 million liters of water, 17 million pounds of bulk food, 2.7 million Meals, Ready-to-Eat (MREs), and more than 149,000 pounds of medical supplies. U.S. military doctors treated 9,758 patients.

After the Haiti earthquake, SOUTHCOM stepped up its collaborative efforts with regional partners to better prepare for and respond to natural disasters. In partnership with the National Defense University, the command sponsored the placement of Pre-positioned Expeditionary Assistance Kits, or PEAKs, to provide disaster response teams with essential supplies and services, including potable water, hybrid renewable power, communications, and situational awareness. Under realistic field conditions, PEAKs have been tested by JTF-Bravo and members of the Honduran military and civil relief agencies.

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Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...