Pacific Partnership began as a humanitarian response to one of the world’s most catastrophic natural disasters, the 2004 tsunami that devastated parts of Southeast Asia. Known at the time as Operation Unified Assistance, the U.S. government’s swift response to the needs of the region resulted in extraordinary humanitarian aid.
Building on the success and goodwill this operation created in the region, U.S. Pacific Fleet sent the hospital ship USNS Mercy back to the region in 2006. The mission staff expanded from the U.S. military to include non-governmental organizations (NGOs), partner nations, and host nations to provide support to the people of the Republic of the Philippines, Bangladesh, Indonesia, West Timor and East Timor.
In 2007, U.S. Pacific Fleet prepared another humanitarian and civic assistance deployment designed to strengthen bi-lateral relationships with other countries, which is crucial to maintaining regional security and stability. Dubbed Pacific Partnership, the operation was deployed on USS Peleliu, one of the Navy’s large deck amphibious warships specially configured for the humanitarian and civic assistance operation. Spaces that historically accommodated Marines became homes to a robust multi-specialized team of preventative medicine personnel, engineering and civic assistance personnel, and a fleet surgical team. Pacific Partnership 2007 traveled to the Republic of the Philippines, Vietnam, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and the Republic of the Marshall Islands.
In 2008, NGO partnerships broadened to include local chapters of host nations’ organizations. When united with regional partners and U.S.-based volunteer groups, the combined team provided a variety of civic action programs to the Federated States of Micronesia, Papau New Guinea, the Philippines, Timor-Leste and Vietnam. In addition, more than 90,000 patients were treated by the medical teams from USNS Mercy. Among those treated were more than 14,000 dental patients and more than 1,300 surgery patients in various locations throughout the Western Pacific.
Regional alliances and partnerships were further strengthened in 2009 as the Pacific Partnership mission visited Oceania with USNS Richard E. Byrd. The underway replenishment ship was retrofitted to carry out medical, dental, engineering, and veterinary services to the Oceanic nations of Kiribati, Republic of the Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands and Tonga.
Thomas E. Weinz, U.S. State Department diplomat who served as the Foreign Service Liaison Officer (FSLO) aboard the USNS Richard E. Byrd, reported, “For me, the greatest legacy is and will remain the countless interactions among the multi-national providers and recipients of this mission. Friendships were forged that will continue over the years, and that will enhance follow-on missions by Pacific Partnership.”
The Pacific Partnership flagship returned to USNS Mercy in 2010, visiting Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia and Timor-Leste, while USS Blue Ridge visited Palau and HMAS Tobruk visited Papua New Guinea. In addition to medical and engineering projects, more than 58,000 pairs of eyeglasses and sunglasses were distributed at medical civic action projects. The dental services provided aboard Mercy and at the clinical outreach sites provided care for 1,505 patients. A notable example of integrated medical care occurred as the audiology department identified children with treatable ear problems on shore and brought them aboard Mercy for care by the ear/nose/throat surgeon. The Biomedical Equipment Repair team also repaired 124 pieces of equipment, an estimated repair value of $5.8 million.
Pacific Partnership, a multinational team, operating primarily from USS Cleveland (LPD 7), returned to Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste, and the Federated States of Micronesia in 2011. For the first time, a Royal New Zealand Navy ship took part. HMNZS Canterbury joined forces with the team in Tonga and Vanuatu, and even acted as the command ship for the mission for nearly a month, embarking the U.S. Navy mission commander and his staff. The Royal Australian Navy again provided assets in 2011, with HMAS Betano and HMAS Balikpapan providing support.
During the course of those visits, the medical contingent treated 38,696 patients at medical and dental civic action projects. The veterinary team, a combination of volunteers from World Vets, Vets Without Borders, Australian Army, and U.S. Army, provided treatment to more than 800 animals. While the medical, dental, and veterinary projects were visible examples of joint and multinational mission, the engineering civic action projects also left lasting reminders of Pacific Partnership’s impact in the region, much like the buildings left behind by U.S. Navy Seabees and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from World War II. The 2011 engineering team worked on three community centers, 14 primary schools, one remote clinic, one Hospital, one evacuation center/gymnasium; one water distribution hub with three water catchment tanks, and one athletic field.
In addition to carrying out medical and engineering infrastructure projects, Pacific Partnership 2011 included close collaboration with partner nations, NGOs and host nation counterparts to develop sustainability projects on a range of topics, including methods of recycling, clean water practices, and alternative energy initiatives.
The true hallmark of Pacific Partnership is to ensure that host nations are equipped with sustainable programs that help them prepare for and support emergency relief efforts, as we work together toward a broader goal of maintaining a stable and secure Pacific region.
In 2012, USNS Mercy will anchor the international Pacific Partnership team, visiting Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.