US military back in Thailand for flood relief efforts
By MATTHEW M. BURKE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 3, 2012
SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — Following a brief respite, the U.S. military has returned to Thailand to continue flood relief efforts.
More than 600 servicemembers from the Marine Corps, Army, Navy and Air Force arrived Jan. 15 to participate in humanitarian and civic assistance projects with armed forces from Thailand and Indonesia ahead of the 31st annual Cobra Gold exercise set to begin Tuesday, said exercise spokesman Marine 2nd Lt. Evan Almaas.
Additionally, a team of airmen arrived Jan. 22 to assist Thai forces with an assessment of the damage to their engine repair and aircraft maintenance operations at Don Mueang International Airport. And groups of Marines arrived three days later to exchange experts and discuss health topics related to post-flood recovery, said Walter Braunohler, a U.S. Embassy Bangkok spokesman.
These revitalized efforts come on the heels of months of relief work involving hundreds of U.S. troops and a multitude of vessels and equipment following Thailand’s worst flooding in decades. When that work was completed in early December, U.S. officials pledged to continue the relief efforts after flood waters receded.
“Through humanitarian and civic assistance programs, we have an opportunity to support the needs of our friends and regional partners,” said Lt. Gen. Kenneth Glueck Jr., deputy commander of the exercises and commanding general of III Marine Expeditionary Force. “Through the exercise, III MEF is continuing to develop regional partnerships, increase prosperity and improve security in the Asia-Pacific region.”
The Kingdom of Thailand, a strategic ally of the U.S., suffered months of heavy monsoon rains that began over the summer, followed by flooding that reached the capital, killing hundreds and causing tens of billions of dollars in economic damage.
A 10-person Humanitarian Assistance Survey Team comprising Marines from III MEF arrived in mid-October to survey the damage. The George Washington Carrier Strike Group also traveled to the region, but left soon after as no request for assistance came.
Navy assets, equipment and additional troops began to trickle into Thailand in October and continued over the next couple of months as troop numbers swelled to about 600 at the height of operations. They participated in assessments, community relations efforts and relief operations, including the reclamation of a school, recovering of the airport, and the loading and unloading of relief supplies to be distributed by the Red Cross.
The U.S. also provided $1.1 million in immediate flood relief assistance through the Thai Red Cross Society and the International Organization for Migration, Braunohler said. In November, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced an additional $10 million aid package.
According to military leaders and government officials this week, the situation is improving but more work is needed.
“Daily life at all the places we’ve been to continues,” said Marine Maj. Richard Graham, lead planner of Cobra Gold 2012 humanitarian and civic assistance. “Schools are open and everything is back on track. There is one area with more damage, but other than that area, life continues and people are back to their daily routine.”
When Cobra Gold officially kicks off, the exercise will feature a wide range of military and humanitarian operations, from live-fire training to the evacuation of noncombatants, Almaas said. This year’s exercise, scheduled to run through Feb. 17, will involve 13,000 participants from as many as 17 nations.
Relief efforts will continue to focus on medical and veterinary programs, community service projects, and repairing destroyed buildings and cultural sites. The embassy has also requested $300,000 to rehabilitate damaged police facilities, Braunohler said.
U.S. Marine Corps Pfc. Anthony Essenmacher, left, a combat engineer with Marine Wing Support Squadron 172, and Royal Thai Marine Corps Chief Petty Officer 1st Class Pothin Nuamthong, an engineer, dig a foundation for a classroom for the Ban Khunsong School in Chanthaburi, Thailand, Jan. 16 as part of Cobra Gold 2012.
Jessica Olivas/Courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps