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U.S. military turns to medical diplomacy

Naval missions to Pacific islands and Latin America offer free care and building help in a bid to improve ties and opinions of America.

September 09, 2007|Audrey McAvoy | Associated Press

MAJURO, MARSHALL ISLANDS — Hellenty Phillips' 6-year-old daughter Marian had a piercing earache, but her family couldn't afford to pay $5 for her to see a doctor.

So Phillips turned to doctors and nurses visiting her tiny Pacific island on a 10-day humanitarian mission organized by the U.S. Navy. They diagnosed Marian's ear infection and gave her ear drops and Tylenol.

The Marshall Islands are just one of nearly 20 impoverished nations across the Pacific and Latin America where, under the Pacific Partnership mission, the Navy has deployed two ships to offer free medical help and repair infrastructure.

Behind the bandages and new school roofs is the hope that the patients and their nations will become better friends of the United States.

Military commanders also hope the assistance will bolster nations plagued by poverty and unemployment, preventing them from becoming breeding grounds for extremist ideologies.

"It's part of raising the bar throughout the region, raising the prosperity," said Adm. Robert F. Willard, Pacific Fleet commander, during a visit to the Marshalls, a former U.S. territory, to see the work. "There are real strategic benefits to what we're doing."

Willard told sailors such missions, which include professionals from nongovernmental organizations and foreign medical personnel, would become an annual event for the Pacific Fleet and a core part of the Navy's operations in coming years. U.S. commanders in the Middle East and elsewhere also are considering using the humanitarian ships in an effort to boost security in their regions.

On Majuro Atoll, Phillips and her daughter Marian visited a makeshift clinic that one of the USS Peleliu's medical teams set up under tents on a converted tennis court.

Chinilla T. Pedro, who interpreted for Phillips and others seeking care, said some learned of the services by word of mouth.

"At the beginning today, they were kind of shy. They were coming around asking us, What is going on -- do we have to pay $5? We said no, treatment is free here, so slowly they started coming around," Pedro said.

Such clinics generally serve several hundred people a day. Those needing operations are referred to the Peleliu, where surgeons can repair hernias and perform cataract surgery.

The amphibious assault ship also has engineers on board to do infrastructure repairs. One team on the remote atoll of Arno Arno replaced the roof on a schoolhouse for 80 students in grades 1 through 8.

At the end of the Peleliu's five-nation tour this month, its 180 doctors, nurses and other professionals will have treated about 30,000 people. Its infrastructure projects in the countries visited -- the Philippines, Vietnam, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and the Marshalls -- are expected to affect the lives of 100,000 people.

Navy sailors have long done community service in their various ports of call in both rich and poor countries. But sending ships on monthlong humanitarian missions is a first.

The potential strategic benefits of such deployments dramatically came to light when the U.S. Pacific Command sent ships and planes to deliver food, tents, and medical care for victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami.

The assistance lifted U.S. approval ratings in predominantly Muslim Indonesia to 38% in 2005 from 15% two years earlier, according to a poll by the Pew Global Attitudes Project.

Indonesian opinion of the U.S. declined again last year, with the Pew poll showing 30% of respondents had a favorable view of the U.S. -- still higher than the earlier poll.

The Pacific Fleet followed up last year by dispatching the USNS Mercy hospital back to Indonesia's tsunami-ravaged Aceh province.

The white-hulled vessel also stopped in places unaffected by the tsunami, such as the southern Philippines, where U.S. forces are helping the Philippine army fight insurgents linked to Al Qaeda.

This year, the Navy sent the Atlantic Fleet's hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, on a four-month, 12-country voyage to Latin America. The trip included stops in Colombia, Ecuador and Nicaragua and is expected to help about 85,000 people with free vaccinations, eye care, surgeries and other procedures.

Willard said Central Command leaders -- who oversee the U.S. military in the Middle East and Central Asia -- want to run a similar mission in their area, as did officials at the European Command, which had responsibility for Europe and Africa. Each mission costs an average of $20 million, the admiral said.

"These aren't trivial missions and they're expensive. But we're willing to pay," Willard told several hundred Peleliu crew members as the ship sat anchored in a lagoon off the Marshallese capital.

The idea is expanding beyond the Navy.

The Pacific Command this summer required the Air Force to send doctors, nurses and technicians to three remote Pacific island nations.

A C-17 cargo jet flew down to Vanuatu, Kiribati and Nauru with 50 medical personnel for 10 days in late July.

"What better way to help improve our image, if you will, and to create friendships, than through aiding people with medical problems?" asked Lt. Gen. Loyd S. "Chip" Utterback, 13th Air Force commander.


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Goodwill hunting

More missions

The U.S. Navy is deploying two ships this year to nearly 20 impoverished nations to offer medical aid and repair infrastructure.

Fighting terrorism

Military commanders hope the humanitarian missions will boost goodwill among nations that often become breeding grounds for extremist ideologies.

Public relations

U.S. approval ratings in predominantly Muslim Indonesia grew in 2005 after the military sent ships and planes to deliver food, tents, and medical care for victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

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