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Navy and Pacific partner nations wrap up service trip

The amphibious dock landing ship USS Pearl Harbor (LSD 52) arrives in Pearl Harbor after completing the annual Pacific Partnership mission, the largest disaster response preparedness mission in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.

PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii — A multinational humanitarian mission to the Indo-Asia-Pacific region that provided services ranging from public health campaigns to veterinary training and infrastructure repair came to a close Friday as the USS Pearl Harbor pulled into its namesake harbor.

Pacific Partnership, conducted annually since 2006 — after the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami ravaged parts of Southeast Asia — focuses on fostering cohesiveness among nongovernmental organizations, U.S. government agencies, regional partner nations and host nations in order to improve maritime security and respond cooperatively to disasters.

The USS Pearl Harbor departed its home port in San Diego on May 14 and began its mission from Hawaii on May 25.

The Navy partnered with countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Japan, France, Canada and Malaysia to hold scores of disaster-response events and medical training sessions.

Among the highlights: treatment of 18,679 medical and dental patients; veterinary evaluation of 4,925 animals; and 49 engineering civic action projects. The partnership also included 102 community service events in six host nations: Samoa, Tonga, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Kiri­bati, Papua New Guinea and the Solo­mon Islands.

Lt. Cmdr. Kirk Ocha­lek, a staff officer for Pacific Partnership 2013, said the trip accomplished much more than he anticipated.

"Seeing the capacity-building that we did, seeing the amount of skills-building that we did — really working with the host nations that we visited (was great)," Ocha­lek said Friday after disembarking the ship. "There's also the amount of construction that ended up happening: I expected a little bit of repairs and not full-scale schools and buildings being built. A lot of water catchment work was done; a lot of just rehabilitative construction was done."

Marguerite Susich, a public-health nurse and a graduate nursing student at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, said for her the trip was about connecting with people from other cultures.

"I had no idea what to expect coming into this," Susich said, adding that she had also never worked with the military. "It was incredible: We went to so many different places, met so many interesting people. My job there was to do public health work when we were in the countries, so we did a lot of health fairs, a lot of community education.

"We also did nursing conferences, so we worked with the nurses in each host nation and did exchanges with them where they taught us what they were doing and we taught them what we were doing."

Susich said two other graduate students and two instructors joined her on the trip, but she was the only one who stayed on the ship for the entire mission. Each year, UH selects students to participate in the mission, she said.

This year a partner nation other than the United States took the lead in a host nation for the first time. Australia assumed the lead in Papua New Guinea, New Zealand took over in Kiri­bati and the Solomon Islands, and the U.S. headed up operations in Samoa, Tonga and the Marshall Islands.

Wing Commander Paul Howard, commander of the Australian contingent of the Pacific Partnership team, said the collaboration went well.

"It's been a wonderful experience for everybody. I'm particularly proud of the Australians in the way they've integrated extremely well with all the other partner nations, the host nations, the nongovernmental organizations and all the interagencies as well," Howard said. "I think it sets us up ideally for when some of the other partner nations take on more of the mission leads in future Pacific Partnerships."

Ochalek said that overall 1,850 men and women participated in the mission, with a maximum of about 750 people on the ship at one time.
 

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