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March 2010

Commander's Perspective
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Haiti earthquake relief

JTF-Haiti Logo

As I write this, I am just hours back from Haiti where Command Master Chief Kenny Green and Navy Lt. Dan Sullivan accompanied me to witness firsthand the Military Sealift Command response and thank the mariners and sailors who answered the call.

This issue of Sealift offers in-depth coverage of MSC's response and the critical role we are playing in the Haiti earthquake relief effort, Operation Unified Response. I can tell you that the speed of our response and the range of capabilities that we brought to Haiti have been widely acknowledged and applauded by leadership throughout DOD, Department of State, Department of Homeland Security and Congress. As I told the mariners I met down there: I had accepted too many words of thanks on their behalf over the past two weeks, and simply had to pass them on to the people who actually earned them.

We've put 21 ships into motion as part of the response effort. Of MSC's total force of more than 8,900 people, more than 2,600 mariners, sailors, control element personnel and other support people have been directly involved in Operation Unified Response. That's 29 percent of our people committed to helping those in need!

The Response

When the full scope of the disaster became understood, MSC's response was swift. MSC hospital ship USNS Comfort was ready to sail in just three days. Normally the activation process takes five, but Comfort got underway just 77 hours after notification with a crew of 67 civil service mariners, 560 medical personnel and an approximately 110-person contingent of support personnel. At one point there were six chief engineers aboard helping to bring the plant on line and ready the ship for sea! Comfort sailed from Baltimore covered live by CNN; very much a symbol of our nation's response to this disaster. Comfort's master, Capt. Bob Holley, told me that they began accepting patients flown in by helicopter the night before they actually reached Port-au-Prince on Jan. 19. They haven't slowed down. During my visit, there was a constant flow of patients on and off the ship, 26 surgeries planned that day and a reunion between a father and an infant son he hadn't seen in three weeks. Comfort is an amazing place of healing and compassion. But MSC's response goes far beyond Comfort's great work.

From the Naval Fleet Auxiliary Force, MSC fleet replenishment oiler USNS Big Horn sailed less than 24 hours after the earthquake and was later joined by MSC dry cargo/ammunition ships USNS Sacagawea and USNS Lewis and Clark to keep the USS Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group and USS Bataan and USS Nassau Amphibious Ready Groups supplied on station. MSC rescue and salvage ship USNS Grasp and the embarked U.S. Army 544th Dive Engineer Team diverted from a SOUTHCOM mission and was among the very first ships on scene and immediately turned to clearing the Port-au-Prince harbor of damaged containers and debris from the earthquake, as well as helping evaluate the integrity of the heavily damaged piers and docks.

MSC oceanographic survey ship USNS Henson, representing the Special Mission Program, was involved in surveying the harbor floor and identifying potential hazards to ships bringing relief supplies. USNS Sumner assisted by passing remote surveying systems and support equipment to Henson.

From the Prepositioning Program, Maritime Prepositioning Ship USNS 1ST LT Jack Lummus accelerated her planned offload at Blount Island and reloaded a tailored package of U.S. Marine Corps construction equipment and supplies, lighterage to carry material ashore and cargo for the U.S. Agency for International Development and other U.S. government agencies, in addition to a mobile sealift operations center van. Lummus' load was the first sizable influx of heavy equipment and over the beach delivery capability to reach Haiti. People I spoke with on the ground called her equipment "a lifesaver." Sister ship USNS PFC Dewayne T. Williams brought a large quantity of Army and Seabee equipment and rolling stock, and support capability for Navy cargo handlers and Amphibious Construction Battalion Two personnel.

Haiti map

The Sealift Program took operational control of four ships from the Maritime Administration's Ready Reserve Force. Crane ship SS Cornhusker State sailed to Haiti to assist with Joint-Logistics-Over-the-Shore, or JLOTS, movement of relief supplies to shore from cargo ships unable to use the devastated port. SS Cape May delivered Seabee construction gear, three sets of lighterage and a roll-on/roll-off discharge facility - key enablers to move equipment and supplies ashore. I visited with the contract mariners on both of these ships, and they were very proud to be playing a role in this operation. Their ships were clean, well-preserved, and they answered the call when the bell rang. SS Wright, normally used for Marine Corps rotary wing aviation maintenance, was standing by, ready for tasking, in Norfolk, Va., capable of serving as a berthing facility near Port-au-Prince for personnel involved in Operation Unified Response. SS Gopher State was likewise standing by to transport additional lighterage if required.

MARAD also activated two high-speed ferries from the National Defense Reserve Fleet for MSC operation, MV Huakai and MV Alakai. Huakai - equipped with a stern ramp - is being used to ferry personnel, vehicles and supplies between Jacksonville and Haiti. They can each hold 450 tons of cargo and up to 500 passengers, and can travel at a sustained speed of up to 40 knots, depending on load and sea conditions. Huakai loaded a rapid port opening package, communications gear, forklifts, trucks, Humvees, supplies and other equipment at Fort Eustis, Va. She also carried personnel from the Army's 689th Rapid Port Opening Element, MSC's Expeditionary Port Unit Detachment and elements from the Army's 7th Sustainment Brigade. After a bumpy transit, some of those soldiers reconfirmed in their own minds why they chose the Army over the Navy! Alakai remained ready for tasking in Norfolk.

The Sealift Program also contracted five tug/barge combinations to help with carrying supplies to and from points around Haiti, in addition to contracting a regular tug boat to assist movement of ships in Port-au-Prince harbor during JLOTS operations.

Obviously, our work is not yet done, and the MSC presence in Haitian waters will be required for quite some time to sustain the flow of supplies that is keeping the Haitian people fed, clothed and able to rebuild their lives.

You may recall what I wrote in my first column in Sealift only four months ago, about my basic philosophy: put people first; be a professional; and be a good shipmate.

During my visit to MSC ships operating around Haiti, I saw evidence of mariners and sailors who shared my views about how we should run this outfit. I saw people taking care of each other, I saw absolute professionals executing their tasks safely and with precision and I saw leadership looking out for their people. I was so proud to see this organization - YOU - stand up so quickly and ably, to answer this latest call to serve - as you always have - "in peace and war."

Sail safe, Shipmates!

Yours, aye,

Mark H. 'Buz' Buzby
Rear Admiral, U.S. Navy
Commander, Military Sealift Command