Civil affairs teams begin to take over tsunami recovery efforts
January 20, 2005
UTAPAO, Thailand — The Army unit usually responsible for post-combat reconstruction hit the ground in tsunami-damaged South Asia recently, ready to rebuild and bridge the gap between civilian aid groups and the military.
Three teams of four civil affairs soldiers with B Company of the 96th Civil Affairs Battalion from Fort Bragg, N.C., are in the region to begin reconstruction efforts and to pave the way for the military’s eventual departure.
“Really that’s what we’re trying to accomplish,” said Maj. Gerry Messmer, Detachment 220’s commander. “Turning over the military (aid and support) pipeline to civilians.”
In the meantime, the teams are focused on relieving suffering.
On their first day in Sri Lanka Saturday, the team there discovered a warehouse with 40 tons of aid that had been overlooked by groups assisting in the relief effort, Messmer said.
They started sorting the pallets of supplies to get the relief out.
“They worked with the Marines to break it down and get it out to the camps,” Messmer said.
A second team is working in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, and the third, back at the headquarters in Thailand.
The teams are able to use existing assessments made by various military and nongovernmental agencies since the disaster three weeks ago. Their goal is to combine the assessments to get an overall measurement of need, such as medical and engineering, then begin meeting that need using military and NGO support.
“The biggest thing we can offer right now really is the cooperation between the civilian organizations and the military,” Messmer said.
The goal for civil affairs is helping local people, contractors, governments and aid agencies to help themselves, he said. They work with the international community and the U.S. government to secure funding for local projects and use local raw materials and contractors to jump-start the local economy.
“My guys are already identifying lumber yards to find materials to build things,” Messmer said.
The immediate goal in many areas is helping return displaced people to their homes to help them start rebuilding.
“Put in wells, build orphanages, schools. Get the people back to their village and back into their community,” Messmer said.
In fishing communities the teams could restore the fishing industry by funding the repair of docks and fish processing facilities and helping fishermen purchase new boats.
Civil affairs falls under the psychological operations command but they often are perceived differently than the regular military. They might wear civilian clothing and usually are not part of combat operations.
That assuages the fears of locals and civilian aid agencies.
“There’s always a hesitancy from the organizations to work with the military,” Messmer said.
The teams likely will have an easier time in South Asia since the damage wasn’t caused by military force or conflict. The civil affairs mission — winning hearts and minds — is usually relevant where people are affected by combat.
“Here it’s easy to build that trust because some of them have nothing left,” Messmer said. “This is exactly the kind of mission that civil affairs was designed to do outside of a combat environment.”
It isn’t clear how long teams will be in place. Civil Affairs groups often remain somewhere after other military units pack up. The battalion has completed several projects in Indonesia over the past six months.
“We’ve actually built a good rapport with the [Indonesian military] through the Embassy and the country team,” Messmer said.