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 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 oversees the activities of around 900 humanitarians, including military and civilian doctors, nurses, veterinarians, engineers and trainers.
Axe: Continuing Promise is a joint and combined mission. What does each service or organization contribute?
Lineberry: We have huge capability here on Comfort [pictured -- ed.], averaging around 1,700 patient encounters ashore per day, and 25 to 30 surgeries per day, some pretty significant. We’re providing a better life for some who might not have access to that kind of care. [NGO] Project Hope has been around for 51 years, and they do this mission 24-7, 365. They were already here [in Panama], and they know the environment and help us make connections with the host-nation providers. A new part is Latter Day Saints Charities, providing some great health-care providers and educators.
Diversity is going to make an organization that much better. Ours is a combined team: Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard and U.S. Public Health Service, which provides an unbelievable team of experts who do preventative medicine and education and provides veterinary services. These organizations are experts at what they do.
Our NGOs, humanitarian organizations, many of these folks have been on [the Navy's] Pacific Partnership cruise or previous [incarnations] of Continuing Promise. They do this for a living. But many of them [the individual volunteers] are not getting paid — it’s summer vacation of a sort for many of these humanitarians. It’s a great partnership with the Navy and armed forces, and adds to our already-capable force by bringing these folks who do this for a living. Project Hope: we’ve been working with them for a long time. They are around the world. Church of Latter Day Saints — they are around the world. A lot of times, Panama as an example, we had LDS Charity folks already here on the ground that serve that church, even before we arrived here — LDS Charity individuals already on the ground here working with our Advance Co-ordinating Elements setting things up for us, helping us with organizing. They know people in Colon, Panama, already, and provide translators for us, very valuable expertise. It’s a perfect team.
Axe: Has there been any resistance from any NGOs worried about a military invasion of humanitarian space?
Lineberry: I was told NGOs would be the toughest part of this, but have found them to be the easiest part, the reason being that they all have a calling in life. Their calling is they want to go out and help people. It’s so easy to get people on board, to be able to take what [Southern Command boss] Admiral James Stavridis and Southcom want us to do … to take this goodwill out to the seven countries we’re going to be visiting, and take these inviduals out to do things they want to do that we want them to do.