U.S. military begins to leave tsunami-stricken region
January 24, 2005
UTAPAO, Thailand — U.S. forces officially ended their relief mission to Thailand on Saturday, moving the few remaining operations to the control of the Joint U.S. Military Assistance Group at the U.S. Embassy, said Marine Lt. Col. Robert Krieg, a member of the combined support force planning team.
Command and control forces will remain at the headquarters in Utapao for the remainder of the dwindling mission, he added.
U.S. forces also began the process to close down in Sri Lanka, a progression that should wrap up this week, Krieg said.
The overall mission to South Asia is being turned over to the United Nations, which will continue to operate with local governments, participating militaries and aid agencies.
“We’re turning (operations) over to them much faster than we thought they’d be ready for,” Krieg said.
Also Saturday, Maj. Gen. David A. Deptula, commander of the joint forces air component from Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, began a tour of the region to see the reconstruction and visit Air Force troops working there.
“We are seeing a rapid transition now in terms of the nations that originally requested aid and basically getting to the point where they can handle on their own the reconstruction efforts,” Deptula said.
At a stop at Utapao, the general said he was pleased with the success of the mission, including the rapid deployment of C-130s to the region and the airlift of supplies by other resources, including Air Force HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters in Sri Lanka.
“It is a testament to the preparedness and readiness of the PACAF forces,” Deptula said of Pacific Air Forces personnel.
Many operations took place on foreign landing strips in areas where U.S. troops haven’t trained before, he said.
In Sri Lanka, U.S. forces moved 146,000 pounds of food, 124,000 pounds of supplies and 8,500 gallons of water, Krieg said.
Pave Hawks helped to evacuate 442 people and Marine and Navy engineers cleared debris in several communities, using some of the debris to repair a sea wall.
At a women’s college in Galle, Seabees and engineers demolished two damaged buildings and moved 250 cubic yards of rubble to clear space for future construction. The groups also cleared debris at several schools and a Sri Lankan army base, Krieg said.
“We’ve seen an immediate effect through our efforts,” said Lt. Jorge Cuadros, the Air Detachment officer-in-charge of Navy Mobile Construction Battalion 7, from Guam, in a written release. “Within two days of clearing the demolished schools, children were back to their classes learning.”
Two Pave Hawk helicopters working out of the airport at Colombo returned to Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, last week. The final aircraft will follow in the coming days.
In Indonesia, the last area for U.S. relief efforts, military personnel continued airlifting supplies into remote areas, Krieg said.
Indonesian officials reopened the damaged road between the main airport at Medan and Banda Aceh, one of the hardest-hit areas on the island of Sumatra, relieving the airlift pressure on the city’s small airport.
To further reduce traffic at the crowded Banda Aceh airport, U.S. aircraft began flying into an airfield on Sambang, an island just off the coast. Air officials also began considering using an airfield near the city of Meulaboh, south of Banda Aceh. The worst devastation occurred between the two cities, Krieg said.
U.S. forces continue to evaluate roads and bridges and will provide their assessments to the Indonesian government and the United Nations. If asked, the United States could provide assistance with the projects, Krieg said.
As the mission wraps up in Indonesia, military leaders will gradually pull out U.S. assets. The first to leave likely will be the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Group, which is nearly past its expected return date to home port. Delaying its return could cause problems with the carrier’s future mission schedule, Krieg said.
“We’re discussing plans right now about when we’ll be done with the Lincoln,” Krieg said.
The remaining sea assets will be the Sasebo, Japan-based ships USS Essex and USS Fort McHenry. Helicopters from several ships will be consolidated on the Essex and on LCACs (landing craft, air cushion) on the Fort McHenry.
The helicopters include: four Navy MH-53 minesweeper Sea Stallion helicopters; four H-60 Sea Hawk helicopters; and eight CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters from the Okinawa-based Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 262.
The landing crafts and aircraft will be used to transport aid from offshore logistics ships to the devastated areas.
The Navy hospital ship USNS Mercy is en route to Indonesia and should arrive in about a week, Krieg said. It will help with medical care and preventative medicine.
“Sanitation is more of a major issue right now than food and water,” Krieg said.
U.S. forces currently are moving about 115,000 pounds of relief supplies and 7,000 gallons of water a day into Indonesia, Krieg said.
Overall, the mission as of Saturday has moved 6.1 million pounds of relief supplies, not counting equipment, in support of the mission. Aircraft have evacuated 819 injured people, he said.
As the mission winds down, military leaders point out that it is more helpful if the local governments and United Nations can rebuild without reliance on outside assistance. The mission also is past the critical period when massive supply airlifts are most needed, they say.
Supplies are well positioned in the area; distribution — by local sources — is now key for the region’s future, said Col. Mark Schissler, commander of the Air Force forces forward and the expeditionary wing commander.
“The further from the crisis you get, you want to be more deliberate about how you distribute,” he said. “They need to be fed systematically. (And) you have to support local markets.”