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American Forces Press Service

Wolfowitz Arrives in Thailand to Review Relief Efforts

By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service

BANGKOK, Thailand, Jan. 15, 2005 -- Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz arrived here today on the first leg of a three-day trip through areas hard hit by the Dec. 26 tsunami.

Wolfowitz will meet with local leaders and U.S. troops delivering humanitarian aid, and view the relief operations at a makeshift headquarters in Utapao, Thailand.

Upon his arrival at the military section of Bangkok International Airport, members of the U.S. State Department's country team here met Wolfowitz and briefed him on the status of relief operations in Thailand.

U.S. Ambassador to Thailand Ralph L. Boyce explained to Wolfowitz that by the day after the tsunami the Thai prime minister had requested military aid. Americans almost immediately started to move U.S. Marines from Japan to assist in the relief effort.

Within four days, Boyce said, U.S. officials had set up a combined support force with 1,500 people from numerous government and nongovernmental organizations. He lauded the Thai government for making a Thai naval base at Utapau available as a hub for relief activities throughout the region.

Boyce attributed this cooperation to "50 years of strong relations" and military-to-military exercises that paid off in this mission.

U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission Alex Arvizu said U.S. officials helped dispatch teams of forensic experts "almost immediately" to help identify remains. Arvizu warned this work could take weeks or months to complete.

Some of these experts are from the U.S. military's Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, formerly known as Joint Task Force Full Accounting, deployed from Hawaii to resolve lingering issues involving Vietnam-era servicemembers who still are listed as missing in action.

Two of these forensic teams moved to Utapao on Dec. 31, said Air Force Lt. Col. Pete Huddle. Since Jan. 5, they have been conducting mortuary affairs work in Phuket, an area that sustained a lot of damage.

The Thai navy bore much damage in the tsunami, said U.S. Army Col. Scott Page, a defense attach for the U.S. Embassy here. One station was destroyed, and several boats and ships of various sizes were badly damaged or destroyed.

The Thai army fared somewhat better, and is sending engineering teams into hard-hit areas to help the recovery effort. In fact, the Thai army started dispatching engineering and aid teams almost immediately.

"They're so efficient we initially had a hard time meeting their pace," said Air Force Col. Terry Boone, deputy chief of the Joint U.S. Military Assistance Group in Thailand. The JUSMAG is permanently stationed in Thailand to foster closer relations and cooperation between the U.S. and Thai militaries.

Boyce said the close cooperation with foreign militaries and international aid organizations shows Thailand's "regional leadership role" and "portends an increasing regional role."

A senior U.S. Agency for International Development official here said he's never seen such close cooperation between such divergent groups.

"This is one of the most collaborative efforts I've ever seen," said Tim Beans, mission director for the USAID's Regional Mission for Asia. "I've never seen cooperation quite like this in a disaster, and it's really working."

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