Assessment teams set up in Sri Lanka
January 2, 2005
KATUNAYAKA AIR FORCE BASE, Sri Lanka — More than two dozen U.S. military members arrived here early Thursday morning to determine what supplies will be needed for humanitarian relief missions in response to the deadly tsunami that struck this small country.
The servicemembers were in two groups: a disaster relief assessment team from Okinawa, with Marines, soldiers and sailors; and an airfield assessment team from the 613th Contingency Response Group at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. Both teams are part of Joint Task Force 536.
They arrived at this Sri Lankan military base to identify what’s needed to support the local U.S. Embassy and humanitarian relief efforts.
“Our mission here is to go out and size up the relief efforts and provide the embassy with a clearer picture of what the military can provide,” said Marine Col. Thomas Collins, disaster relief assessment team commander.
His team included military members of specialties including civil affairs, medical treatment, preventive medicine and contracting and civil engineers.
The airmen from Andersen were in Sri Lanka “to evaluate the conditions of the airfield and to select the best place for strategic airlift,” said Lt. Col. Paul Williams, that team’s commander, according to an 18th Wing news release from Kadena Air Base, Okinawa. “We will make sure that the local airfields can support aircraft like the C-17 and the C-5 during disaster relief operations.”
Williams brought less than a dozen personnel for the assessment Thursday but said he expects the rest of the unit to follow shortly to help offload relief supplies, the news release stated.
Both teams traveled to Sri Lanka on an eight-hour flight on a KC-135R from the 909th Aerial Refueler Squadron from Kadena. Arriving at approximately 12:30 a.m. Thursday, they were greeted by dozens of local residents and U.S. Embassy staff members.
Once the assessment teams complete their evaluations, airlifts will begin from Yokota Air Base near Tokyo and from Kadena, officials said. Crews will be scheduled to fly around the clock to transport much-needed items such as water, food and medical supplies.
“We will do whatever we need to help,” Maj. Alex Ferido, KC-135 aircraft commander and member of the 909th Air Refueling Squadron at Kadena, was quoted as saying in the release. “Today we brought some Marines and airmen. Tomorrow we might be refueling aircraft coming to the Pacific to help alleviate this tragedy.”
Over the next week, Collins said, his team will determine what’s needed; he’ll also talk with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit and Expeditionary Strike Group 5, both of which are to head to the region.
“We have to size it all up so we can call back (to the joint task force) and say, ‘Hey, this is what you need.’” he said. “But we’ll meet with the embassy first to see what they need. The embassy is going to give us a lot of dictation tomorrow.
“This is just the initial stage,” he said. “The heavy punch will be about a week from now.”
Collins said Thailand will be the major hub, and equipment and supplies will be flown via C-130 to other staging areas. He said the task force then will use the helicopters from the 15th MEU to distribute the supplies.
The III Marine Expeditionary Force, which leads the joint task force, already is setting up a command post in Thailand, he said. An advance group left Okinawa for Thailand on Wednesday to begin setting up the command element.
So far, Air Force C-130s and KC-135s and Navy P-3s have flown around the clock from Kadena to transport pallets of water, food, clothing and medical supplies to Thailand, in what is expected to be one of the largest humanitarian relief operations since the Berlin Airlift, said Capt. Carlos Diaz, an 18th Wing spokesman.
As the teams arrived in Sri Lanka, other assessment teams were dispersing throughout the hard-hit region, Collins said. He said initial plans have his team on the ground for approximately 45 days, but that always could change.
“It’s a true team effort,” he said. “I don’t care who has got the lead … if they need my help, I’ll fall in. It’s not about the glory, it’s about getting the job done.
“When they say, ‘We don’t need you,’ that’s when you go home. We will adapt, improvise and overcome.”