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Pacific Partnership to Run as Scheduled Aboard USNS Byrd

By Donna Miles - American Forces Press Service

HONOLULU, May 20, 2009 – The H1N1 flu virus won’t be able count the Pacific Partnership 2009 mission among its casualties. Pacific Partnership will kick off as scheduled next month, delivering medical, dental, veterinary care and engineering support to the South Pacific — albeit it on a new platform due to an H1N1 virus diagnosis. USNS Richard E. Byrd will conduct the four-month humanitarian assistance mission to Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands and Tonga, U.S. Pacific Fleet officials announced yesterday.

USNS Byrd is a Military Sealift Command underway replenishment ship assigned to U.S. 7th Fleet. The Pacific Partnership mission initially had been assigned to USS Dubuque, a San Diego-based amphibious transport dock ship. But Navy Adm. Robert F. Willard, U.S. Pacific Fleet commander, cancelled the Dubuque’s participation earlier this month after one of the 50 sailors aboard who reported flu-like symptoms tested positive for the H1N1 virus. Despite the likelihood that the virus would run its course and the crew would recover fully while essentially quarantined as they transited the Pacific, Willard scratched Dubuque’s participation to eliminate any risk of — or concerns about — spreading the virus.

Willard offered assurance, however, that the annual Pacific Partnership would go on – an effort Navy Adm. Timothy J. Keating, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, said reinforces U.S. commitment to the mission and the region.

Byrd, although slightly bigger than the Dubuque, has fewer beds and less extensive onboard medical facilities. Its medical crew – a blend of medical-care providers from the military, nongovernmental organizations and volunteer groups – will treat patients ashore, just as they would have if based on the Dubuque, Keating said.

To help to make up for fewer medical providers, the Navy will tailor teams for each country to be visited to best meet its specific needs — “the most important thing being the folks who are hoping for and expecting expert medical, dental and veterinary assistance will realize those expectations,” Keating said.

“We are pleased to be able to continue on with Pacific Partnership and meet our commitments to the host nations,” the Pacific Partnership 2009 mission commander, Navy Capt. Andrew Cully, said after yesterday’s announcement of the Byrd’s participation.

“After reviewing the available Navy assets and their capabilities, USNS Richard E. Byrd proved to have more than enough storage space for equipment and supplies necessary to support the mission,” Cully said.

Byrd has a crew of 124 civil-service mariners working for Military Sealift Command, as well as a detachment of 11 Navy sailors who provide operational support and supply coordination. When needed, the ship also can carry a supply detachment, officials said.

Another side benefit of the new mission platform is that Byrd has as many engineers as medical personnel aboard. This will enhance Pacific Partnership’s efforts to refurbish schools and medical clinics in nearly every country to be visited, officials said.

In Kiribati, the engineers are scheduled to replace a key bridge between North and South Tarawa.

For Pacific Partnership, Cully said, partner nations and nongovernmental organizations remain important members of the mission team. “We expect to execute a significant portion of the projects planned for in our initial concept of operations,” he said.

Achieving that goal took some flexibility, but U.S. Pacific Fleet came up with a solid plan, he added.

The Pacific Partnership mission team and much of its equipment and supplies are slated to leave San Diego in early June aboard USNS Amelia Earhart as it makes its first deployment to 7th Fleet. The team and equipment then will transfer at sea to USNS Richard E. Byrd during the transit to Oceania, as Earhart continues on to other mission commitments.

Emphasizing the “partnership” in Pacific Partnership, Keating called the mission a “profoundly powerful” way to reach out to and bring hope to those in need. He recalled the way he personally witnessed past Pacific Partnership missions touching people’s lives. A young Filipino boy whose potentially fatal digestive disorder was cured through a relatively simple surgery aboard now “has a full life ahead of him,” Keating said, with the chance to grow up to be a farmer or a helicopter pilot or even president of the Philippines.

Keating also relayed the story of watching a young Vietnamese girl as the doctors took the bandages off after repairing her cleft palate. “Thank you for making me pretty,” she said as she looked into a mirror to admire their work.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Keating said of the mission as he emphasized the “indelible imprint” it leaves on people’s lives. It also helps reduce the likelihood that those who benefit from or know about the mission will elect to support violent extremists, Keating said.

In addition, he said, the mission lays a foundation for participants to work with potential future partners to prepare for future crises during peacetime.

“Our overarching mission is to defend the homeland and prevail in the struggle against violent extremism,” he said. “And folks are less likely to support violent extremism if they understand the goodwill expressed by the citizens of the United States of America and other countries in our [area of responsibility].”

USNS Mercy, a San Diego-based Military Sealift Command hospital ship, conducted last year’s Pacific Partnership mission, visiting the Philippines, Vietnam, Micronesia, Timor-Leste and Papua New Guinea. The previous year, USS Peleliu conducted Pacific Partnership 2007, visiting the Philippines, Vietnam, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and the Marshall Islands.

As this year’s Pacific Partnership prepares to kick off, a similar mission, Continuing Promise 2009, is under way in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The hospital ship USNS Comfort left its home port in Baltimore on April 1 to conduct a four-month mission to Antigua, Barbuda, Colombia, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua and Panama.

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