Gunston Hall crew pauses mission, joins in Haiti relief effort
January 31, 2010
STUTTGART, Germany — The international crew aboard the USS Gunston Hall was looking forward to a routine three-month mission to help train West African navies as part of the Africa Partnership Station.
Then, it got the call to sail to Haiti.
The crew — which includes officers from the U.S., Italy, Germany, France, Britain and African countries — was thrust into the international relief effort as the ship left port in Virginia following the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that hit Haiti on Jan. 12.
"We were on the ship headed to West Africa and we got diverted," said U.S. Navy Capt. Cindy Thebaud, commander of the mission.
"The team has … really pulled together in a totally different mission," she said. "The devastation here is overwhelming."
The ship is anchored near Haiti’s Killick Coast Guard base and is providing supplies for the base’s clinic. The supplies include items such as bottled water, rice, spaghetti noodles and other dry goods. The crew also brought thermometers, surgical lights, syringes, medications and bandages.
The Gunston Hall crew helped set up a field hospital on land and a hospital landing zone, into which more than 100 missions have been flown.
"It has been a steady stream of [sailors] wanting to contribute," U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Tim Labenz said about the mission. "We have a rotation, so everyone can go ashore to do something."
"When I was told of the change [in the mission], I was enthusiastic and I knew I could bring my operational experience to help," Italian navy Lt. Cmdr. Marco Campasso said. "I have French-language skills that help in the translation ashore."
Campasso said his job of helping with security was difficult because people who saw the base as a refuge clamored to get in to get food or help. He said he had to explain that the base was providing only medical care.
"We spent lots of time talking to the people outside, trying to keep them calm. It was very demanding," he said.
Thebaud said Petty Officer 2nd Class Josue Jean’s knowledge of the area played an important role in the mission. Jean grew up in Haiti’s capital of Port-au-Prince before moving to New York City and joining the Navy.
He was born near the Coast Guard base, which is about six miles from Port-au-Prince. Jean, 25, didn’t know whether his mother and sister had survived the quake until he got a call.
"When I got word about the earthquake, my heart literally stopped," Jean said. "I tried calling (family). I felt helpless."
Getting rerouted from Africa to Haiti helped quell that sense of helplessness, said Jean, an operations specialist. "I was happy about it because I was able to help my people."
"I think there is still a lot to do," he said. "It will take a long time to recover from everything, but, with help, it will be better."
The Gunston Hall’s crew of foreign officers described the relief effort as unlike anything they’ve done before.
"Seeing the pictures on TV, I thought this was my chance to do my bit to help the Haitians," Ghanaian navy Lt. Cmdr. Sam Ayelazono said.
Once it wraps up its Haiti mission, the Gunston Hall will head to Africa, where the crew will train and build up African nations’ navies so they can combat drug trafficking, human trafficking, piracy and other security threats, according to U.S. Navy Lt. Patrick Foughty, spokesman for Naval Forces Europe-Africa.