The U.S. Navy is no stranger to humanitarian missions. But with the emergence of “smart-power” doctrine, focused on building alliances and exporting stability, professional capacity and good governance to what Tom Barnett calls “the gap” of the developing world, Navy humanitarians have found themselves on the front lines of U.S. and world security, especially in Africa (via Africa Partnership Station) and Latin America (by way of Operation Continuing Promise). In April 2009, the Navy hospital ship Comfort set sail from Virginia Baltimore on a four-month mission to deliver medical, engineering and training assistance to seven Latin American nations. David Axe interviews some of the key participants.
by DAVID AXE
As commodore for Operation Continuing Promise, Navy Captain Bob Lineberry, pictured with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Haiti, oversees the activities of around 900 humanitarians, including military and civilian doctors, nurses, veterinarians, engineers and trainers.
Axe: What’s the goal of the mission?
Lineberry: This is the third year for Continuing Promise, the second for Comfort. During there three years, we’ve gone out and done medical and engineering events in many countries. [Southern Command chief] Admiral [James] Stavridis has many goals for Continuing Promise. What the mission is doing is going down and enhancing security and stability, as a continuing mission. Primarily, it’s a medical and engineering mission, but we also do education and community-relations projects. The operation provides us an excellent opportunity for training and gaining experience, while at the same time building relations with many countries and strengthening already-strong bonds, finding new partners in countries down here. Also with this mission, we’re bringing down many NGOs and what I refer to as humanitarian organizations to help our [military] team. Over the last three years, we’ve had a huge influx of civilian humanitarian organization to help us with these missions. It’s very rewarding doing medical, dental and veterinary events out in all these countries. They’re great partners and huge fans.
Axe: How does that contribute to U.S. national security?
Lineberry: Take Panama. Comfort was here in 2007, and back here in 2009. We’ve built strong a relationship, adding on to a history and partnership here in Panama. This time, more than in 2007, we had Panamanian health-care providers working side-by-side with us, so now they have a better undertanding of what our mission is here, providing medical and dental serice to people in need. Us being here is right in line with the [U.S. national] maritime strategy, with forward presence.
Now take medical providers doing education. [In Panama] we got some excellent training in malaria [treatment and prevention]. We can take that to other parts of the world. That’s a small example of using Continuing Promise in Southcom, building partnerships, being there for our allies if they need us, when they need us. Plus, it’s hurricane season, so we’re down here planning and preparing for the next event, whatever that might be.