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Sunday, January 9, 2005
"Without question, we've saved lives," said John Bratton, a program manager for MPAT, the Multinational Planning Augmentation Team, an initiative begun in 1999 by Adm. Dennis Blair when he commanded U.S. military forces in the Pacific.
MPAT -- along with the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, the Center of Excellence in Disaster Assistance and Management at Tripler Army Medical Center, and the East-West Center in Manoa -- has been bringing military planners, civilian officials and humanitarian groups to Hawaii for seminars, to get to know each other and to work out what the military calls SOP, or standing operating procedures, essentially a playbook so that everyone knows what to do in a crisis.
The training seminars and conferences also introduce the Hawaiian concepts of ohana and the aloha spirit to military and civilian leaders from dozens of countries around the world.
Participants say the effort has paid off in the relief effort after the Dec. 26 disaster in south Asia.
"It's a much more rapid response than we would have seen in years past," said retired Marine Lt. Gen. Hank Stackpole, now the president of the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies.
After the U.N. peacekeeping mission in East Timor, Blair believed that future conflicts in the Pacific would likely require the United States to play a supporting, rather than a leading, role.
"Instead of being like tennis -- one on one -- all of a sudden it's more like a team sport," said Robin Hayden, the public relations manager for the Center of Excellence at Tripler.
In a phone interview from Utapao, Thailand, where he is helping to coordinate the disaster relief, Cmdr. Scott Weidie, the MPAT director for real operations, said because of the program he can pick up the phone and call a friend in any of the military forces, the United Nations and other groups participating in Operation Unified Assistance.
"It really is helpful to have a lot of people who know people who you can call," Weidie said.
Dr. Gunther Heintz, the president of Medicorps, an international medical relief organization based in Hawaii, said he is meeting with Hawaii doctors who want to help with tsunami relief.
Because of contacts he's made through MPAT, he understands the military's role in a disaster and knows who to call to see where doctors might be needed, to get help arranging transportation and to get information on security and the situation on the ground.
Every six months, military planners from up to 31 nations come to Hawaii for MPAT meetings to work on improving standard operating procedures for international missions. There are also military exercises held elsewhere, such as Cobra Gold and Tempest Express, which include disaster relief operations.
"The same tools that you use to go to war -- except for the bullet launchers -- are what you use for humanitarian assistance," Stackpole said.
The last MPAT Tempest Express exercise, held six months ago, included a simulated disaster on islands off India.
MPAT is unique to the Pacific Command, where personal relationships, especially in Asia, are valued, Bratton said.
He emphasized that while MPAT was started by the U.S. military, it is not a U.S. organization and does not have a formal structure like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Europe. "It belongs to all the member nations," he said.
The cost of the program to the United States is about $800,000 a year, Bratton said.
As the program has grown under Pacific forces commander Adm. Thomas Fargo, it has broken down barriers and made it easier for nations to invite the United States into their countries and allow overflights, Bratton said.
Stackpole and Bratton said Hawaii is an ideal place to base MPAT and other east-west initiatives.
"The ocean is our highway," Stackpole said. "Hawaii is looked upon as the first line of America by every one of these people that come to us from the Far East."
When people from different nations come here and meet, they don't stand out, Bratton said. "We're a melting pot to begin with," he said.
Stackpole said the people who attend seminars at his center are told that they are all one ohana.
Besides training seminars and discussions here, the military leaders also participate in team-building activities, including outrigger canoe racing, Bratton said.
"We build upon the aloha spirit of multinational cooperation," he added. "More aloha, that means more peace and stability in the long run."
BANDA ACEH, Indonesia » Rescue workers pulled thousands more rotting corpses from the mud and debris of flattened towns along the Sumatran coast yesterday, two weeks after surging walls of water caused unprecedented destruction on the shores of the Indian Ocean. The death toll in 11 countries passed 150,000.
Security fears also came into sharp focus today with gunfire near a U.N. compound in Indonesia and a religious clash in Sri Lanka as relief workers spread across nations devastated by killer waves. No relief workers were hurt in either incident.
In Takua Pa, Thailand, teams of American and European forensic technicians, including technicians from Hawaii, are working night and day at a makeshift morgue in a Buddhist temple, struggling against equatorial heat to identify and preserve for burial as many as 2,000 bodies of the foreign vacationers who died in the tsunami.
Among the living, hungry people with haunted expressions were still emerging from isolated villages on Sumatra island.
Staggered by the scale of the disaster, aid officials announced plans to feed as many as 2 million survivors each day for the next six months, focusing particularly on young children, pregnant women and nursing mothers.
World Food Program Executive Director James Morris said at a Jakarta news conference that the operation likely would cost $180 million.
"Many of the places where we work are remote, detached and their infrastructure has been dramatically compromised," Morris said a day after he visited the province of Aceh with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. "We will be distributing food ... by trucks, by barges, by ships, by helicopters, by big planes."
In one positive sign, health officials said there were no signs yet of feared epidemics of disease.
President Bush, in his weekly radio address, said the United States was "rushing food, medicine and other vital supplies to the region. We are focusing efforts on helping the women and children who need special attention, including protection from the evil of human trafficking."
Indonesia, which has a reputation as a base for child trafficking gangs, said yesterday it was monitoring its borders to prevent such smuggling.
As aid poured into a region long troubled by separatist violence, Indonesian soldiers resumed patrols in Aceh to search for rebels. International aid groups worried that renewed conflict could hamper their work.
Underscoring those concerns, Indonesian police blamed a shooting that apparently was aimed at officers guarding the home of the deputy provincial police chief near the U.N. relief headquarters in the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, on separatist rebels. No injuries were reported.
In Sri Lanka, two hand grenades hurled in a clash between Christians and Hindus killed at least three people and wounded 37 in an eastern region where international aid workers were helping tsunami victims, police said. No aid workers were near the explosions.
Two suspected assailants were arrested soon after the attack in a Tamil rebel-controlled area late yesterday, said V.H. Anil, a policeman in the eastern town of Valaichchenai.
Problems also persisted in coordinating the humanitarian efforts. Aid groups complained that visiting dignitaries have choked the tiny main airport in Banda Aceh and hampered distribution of relief supplies. The airport was temporarily shut for the visits of Annan and Secretary of State Colin Powell, for example.
With volunteers and rescue workers reaching more remote areas, still more dead were found. Indonesian authorities raised their death toll estimate by nearly 3,000 to more than 100,000 and braced for tens of thousands more homeless than at first expected.
Sri Lanka, by contrast, closed scores of refugee camps as people began drifting back to their damaged homes. With 38 more confirmed deaths, the nation's death toll stood at 30,718.
World governments, led by Australia and Germany, have pledged nearly $4 billion in aid -- the biggest relief package ever. The United States has pledged $350 million.