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'Force for good': Sailors provide disaster relief to Philippines

Nov. 15, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
PHILIPPINES-WEATHER-TYPHOON
An air crewman on a Navy helo attached to the aircraft carrier George Washington views a village north of Tacloban, Philippines, on Friday that was destroyed by Typhoon Haiyan. (MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images)
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A C-2A Greyhound from the 'Providers' of Fleet Logistics Support Squadron 30, carrying relief supplies for Operation Damayan, makes an arrested landing on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier George Washington on Friday in the Philippine Sea. (MC3 Paolo Bayas/Navy)
An MH-60S helicopter from Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 25 transports a pallet of water from the cargo ship Charles Drew. (MC3 Brian H. Abel/Navy)
Sailors aboard the aircraft carrier George Washington move a pallet of drinking water across the flight deck. GW's carrier strike group is supporting the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade in response to Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. (MC3 Paolo Bayas/Navy)
Sailors aboard the aircraft carrier George Washington load water onto an MH-60S Seahawk from the 'Golden Falcons' of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 12 while deployed to the Philippine Sea. (MC3 Paolo Bayas/Navy)
One of the key Navy missions will be delivering supplies to the hardest-hit areas in the Philippines, including Tacloban, off the central coast. (Jeoffrey Maitem/Getty Images)
Aviation Electrician's Mate 2nd Class Mathew Fleshman directs an MH-60S helicopter of the 'Island Knights' of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 25 from the Military Sealift Command dry cargo and ammunition ship Charles Drew on Thursday in the Philippine Sea. (MC3 Brian H. Abel/Navy)
U.S. service members load relief supplies onto a Navy Seahawk helicopter from the aircraft carrier George Washington at a landing zone at the airport in Tacloban, central Philippines, on Friday. (Wally Santana/The Associated Press)
U.S. sailors and Philippine army soldiers help a woman onto an HC-130 Hercules from Marine Wing Support Squadron 172 to be airlifted to a safer location Friday in Guiuan, Philippines. (MCSN Liam Kennedy/Navy via AP)
Civilians displaced by Typhoon Haiyan board a Marine Corps transport aircraft at Tacloban Air Base in the Philippines on Tuesday before being transported to Manila. (Navy via Getty Images)

“Operate forward” is a Navy tenet — one that was quickly demonstrated in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan.

On Nov. 8, the natural disaster laid waste to the eastern part of the Philippines. Thousands were killed and 600,000 left homeless.

The Navy responded almost immediately, first with surveillance aircraft from Japan and then with the arrival of many more sailors, ships and supplies.

“We’re forward. It’s no accident that the first 10 naval ships to arrive on station here were U.S. ships,” said Rear Adm. Mark Montgomery, head of the George Washington Carrier Strike Group. Montgomery is leading the maritime deployment and, as of Nov. 15, most of his ships were located off Samar Island, where the storm first struck, in the east-central part of the country.

In addition to the aircraft carrier George Washington, the Navy has sent two cruisers, two destroyers and a number of ships from Military Sealift Command. Two amphibious dock landing ships, Ashland and Germantown, were expected to arrive on station Nov. 20, and more MSC ships were on the way, too.

That adds up to more than 7,600 sailors, 13 ships and 23 helicopters participating in the Marine Corps-led Operation Damayan, which in Tagalog translates to “help in time of need.”

Montgomery described the area around Samar Island as “just devastation.”

“At least 95 percent of the structures are significantly damaged — roofs are missing, gutted interiors,” he told Navy Times in a Nov. 15 phone interview.

Sailors on the ships are loading helos up with supplies, especially water, and distributing them in some of the most remote and hardest-hit areas. Though the storm happened more than week before, medical evacuations remained a daily occurrence, Montgomery said. People attempting to navigate the wreckage are leading to “fresh wounds,” he said.

So far, Montgomery said, the biggest challenge was setting up a communications hub and airfield in the town of Guiuan on the southern tip of Samar. The cross-service effort involved soldiers and airmen leading the communications work, Marines devising a fuel-bladder system on the airfield and sailor-conducted loading and unloading of C-130 transport aircraft, Montgomery said.

He’s not sure how long U.S. forces will be deployed, and a lot depends on how quickly roadways can be cleared. The dock landing ships will help in that department; they’ll carry a number of Marine road-clearing vehicles, said Capt. Heidi Agle, commodore of Amphibious Squadron 11, who is traveling to the Philippines aboard Germantown.

She said the mood of the ship is “stoic” and that her sailors are “very proud” to take part in a mission aimed at reducing human suffering.

“This is what I signed up for. To do the right thing. Whether it’s being the pointy end of the spear or helping people who are in desperate need,” Agle said. “And there is desperate need, and we’re going to go and do our job.”■

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