When you work with the military, you expect to “hurry up and wait.” Sometimes complex operations just can’t be rushed. But when you’ve got hundreds of impoverished Nicaraguans depending on you for medical care, you can’t afford to wait forever.
After a great start on Tuesday, the Navy assault ship Kearsarge — on a four-month “soft power” mission to deliver humanitarian aid to South America — suffered reversals on Wednesday. What began as a mere delayed chopper flight cascaded into widespread screw-ups that threatened to undermine the Navy’s “hearts and minds” strategy here.
But in one sense, screw-ups are meant to happen. This mission is, after all, a “learning experience,” according to Commodore Frank Ponds. “As we do this from year to year, we’ll learn. We’ll find efficiencies,” Ponds told me.
Wednesday’s snafus started when one of the day’s initial CH-53E heavylift chopper flights, used to ferry people and supplies ashore to Nicaragua’s remote Mosquito Coast, suffered a delay of at least an hour. That pushed back the day’s whole flight schedule, stranding people on the ship when they should have been ashore at medical sites. The delays were compounded when the Nicaraguan soldiers assigned to escort Kearsarge crew to their work sites were themselves some three hours late.
Worse, nobody had bothered to set up a communications link to the main medical clinic, where hundreds of Nicaraguans had begun gathering at dawn. They waited, confused, without any explanation, as the temperature and tempers rose. By the time the first doctors arrived, several hours late, there was an angry crowd at the gates. Nicaraguan soldiers and cops held them back as the Kearsarge teams scrambled to prepare their stations.
Ponds hovered in the wings, livid. He in fact had been the very first from Kearsarge to show up, early in the morning just after the clinic was scheduled to open. He’d arrived with the 4th Fleet commander, a 2-star admiral, hoping to show off his forward-thinking new mission –- only to find it shuttered, with a growing mob of neglected patients outside. “I’ve never seen anyone reach for a cell phone so fast,” said one young sailor who witnessed the commodore’s reaction.
Late in the afternoon, the harried clinic staff finally caught up to the day’s patient quota and made plans for a radio link to keep patients informed of future delays. In the end, it appeared no lasting harm had been done. Because they’d stayed late to make up for their tardiness, the weary humanitarians had missed the last chopper flight of the day. So they trekked to the beach to catch a landing craft to Kearsarge.
It took an hour to load the flat-bottom boat. The last aid worker had just boarded when the boat’s Navy crew told everyone to get off and board a different boat. The first one, they said, was supposed to carry only equipment.
Loading the second landing craft took another hour. The doctors, nurses and journalists had to wade from beach to boat with their backpacks held over their heads (pictured). Soaking wet, hungry and tired, they probably felt just like their scorned patients had that morning. The landing craft was just a couple hundred yards offshore when there came a call over the radio: the other boat, the one carrying the equipment, had lost an engine and would need a tow. In other words, more delays were in the cards.
Instead of groans from the heaps of weary people, there was only sardonic laughter. It’s a noble mission that Kearsarge is undertaking, and a good one for the Pentagon’s emerging soft-power strategy. Plus, it’s totally necessary to make some mistakes in order to learn anything. But for Kearsarge’s exhausted humanitarians that evening, the big picture was lost in the gritty, unhappy details.