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: How do make sure that the services you deliver to your host nations are sustainable, after you leave?
Lineberry: We’ve worked very closely with all our host nations’ ministries of health and governments, U.S. embassies, the State Department, and U.S. AID to ID where can we best help the country with that long-term sustainment issue. Every country has been different.
What can we best bring with a team of 900 folks? In Panama, we have great capability in providing basic life support system training, as well as advanced life support. In Panama and as well as in Antigua, it’s in the thousands of doctors, nurses and health-care providers we’ve trained in the latest [life-support] procedures. The Ministry of Health will tell us where might we be best suited or who might we best train. We’re looking as well at the embassy, for what’s the long-term effect of helping these folks.
Axe: How do we know that “smart power” works to improve our security?
Lineberry: Are we gaining valuable experience with our team? We take health-care providers from the armed forces and our partners and get four months of experience. We’re doing just that. Today we’re sending [in] some 52 Naval Reserve health-care providers and [sending home] back 52. In that aspect, we’re achieving our goals of getting maximum training experience for the armed forces.
We look at this in every port, the positive aspect of our presence here. Southcom has analysts come back and ask how effective was this trip. It’s all been positive: folks getting what they need, fostering good will and building partnerships in the Caribbean.
Axe: If you could do this deployment over, what would you do differently?
Lineberry: In the planing of this, we certainly could have had better participation from, I would say, our NGOs up-front. It would be much better if they were aware of this mission and the requirements. Within 30 days prior to us starting this mission on 1 April, we were [still] trying to finalize the numbers [of volunteers] for some of the humanitarian missions to provide us.
I would like to see larger engagement from the embassies — not that they’re not engaged, but [I want] much more participation in the planning process. Typically, [there's] a person from the [embassy's] military group or another embassy-assigned lead, and there is so much more capacity there in the embassy: in public affairs, strategic communications. Some of these things we can certainly do better, the next time around.