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American Forces Press Service

USS Bonhomme Richard Takes Lead Role In Disaster Relief

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

ABOARD THE USS BONHOMME RICHARD, Jan. 17, 2005 - Off the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, floats the USS Bonhomme Richard.

"We're the hub of the sea base here," said Capt. J. Scott Jones, the ship's commanding officer. And the crew has been taking that role very seriously.

The earthquake and tsunamis struck the Indian Ocean region on Dec. 26, just 20 days after the Bonhomme Richard left its homeport of San Diego for a six-month deployment. Almost immediately, the planning began. "One can just look at it and say, 'We're going to get this mission,'" Jones said. But even if the Bonhomme Richard didn't get the mission, Jones said, the decision was made to start planning for such a role as a good training exercise. Jones said it became a question of, "What can we do to support this mission from the ship?"

The ship's capabilities were analyzed in relation to what was going to be needed on the ground and how to get it there. The ship's assets include vertical lift capability. That has been key to this operation, Jones said. Helicopters are able to get into isolated areas to drop off supplies.

"We're flying the new MH-60 Sierra now; in fact, we're the first (amphibious assault ship) to deploy with it. And it's become the workhorse of the operation," Jones said.

There are only two MH-60s are aboard, the captain said that percentagewise, the MH-60 is outlifting "anything out here."

The ship also has a solid medical department that includes both medical and dental personnel. While the Indonesian government has said it is flush with medical personnel, the Bonhomme Richard's dental personnel have been making a difference at the hospital in Meulaboh.

They began seeing patients on Jan. 13 at the hospital's dental office. Mostly performing extractions, in the first the clinic saw upward of 40 patients in its first three days.

Perhaps as important as any other asset the Bonhomme Richard can offer is the ability to produce fresh drinking water from salt water -- an extra 30,000 gallons of fresh water a day above and beyond its daily needs. Storage of that extra water was a concern, however.

"As we rounded Singapore, we got some five-gallon jugs," Jones said. The (hull maintenance technicians) started building manifolds -- long lengths of pipe with faucets over the side -- providing the ability to fill up multiple containers at one time.

Knowing those jugs would put a dent in the ship's storage capabilities, Jones and the ship's supply officer hit the Internet and found a Florida-based company that manufactures water bladders.

When the owner heard what the containers were wanted for, he offered to donate a 10,000-gallon bladder to the Navy. The only catch was he couldn't pay to ship it. Between the donated container and the 250- and 500-gallon bladders purchased from the company, 23,000 gallons of storing capacity was purchased. "Now (the water bladders are) out in the country, and they're a big hit," Jones said.

The ship also ordered some supplies that - even if they weren't used for disaster relief - could be used in the future. Medicine, paper and similar supplies were top concerns.

As for the crew, Jones said there was no need to form a working party. In fact, volunteers had to be turned away.

Supplementing their official role, crewmembers started collecting funds for the Blue/Green Tsunami Relief Fund. By Jan. 16, $10,000 had been collected.

The ship's bakery team also has pitched in, Jones said.

"The culinary specialists down in the galley, along with cooking the meals for 3,000 people on board the ship, have put on a night crew that bakes subsistence items," Jones said. "While we have humanitarian rations, you can imagine what it's like when you get 22,000 cookies placed in the hands of some relief workers and the Marines going ashore who can distribute them to the children." One night, the team baked 22,400 cookies, Jones said.

But cookies aren't the only items coming from the ship's galley for the relief effort. The culinary specialists also are busy with brownies and cornbread infused with kernels of corn to boost the nutritional value.

"The morale of the crew is just phenomenal right now," Jones said. "It's like a sense of purpose. They're really doing something. They're really energized at doing the mission. They're out there working at the edge of the envelope in terms of working hours, and doing it safely."

The operation tempo has been ratcheted up a notch or two - the flight deck is operating sunrise to sunset - and safety is a paramount concern. Jones said that over a period of time working as the crew has been, focus can dull a bit. To combat that, the ship is holding extra safety briefings. There also is more planning taking place and extra safety observers who do nothing but stand back and watch to make sure crewmembers are going about their jobs safely.

As important as the mission is and as important as it is to do it safely, teamwork always pays off. And, according to Jones, the disaster relief operations are about nothing if they're not about teamwork.

"It's not just a sea base. It's not just a United States Navy sea base. It's a coalition sea base," Jones said. "Everybody is here. Everybody's coming to help."

'Everybody' includes the Singaporean navy among many other navies, militaries and nongovernmental organizations. The Singaporean ship Endurance recently got a little help from some Bonhomme Richard welders who fixed a hull on one of the Endurance's landing craft. The repair, which happened overnight, restored the ship's capability of running both its landing craft in support of Operation Unified Assistance.

The cooperation doesn't end with the Singaporean navy. Australia, Austria, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, Pakistan also are lending a hand with the operation.

"That's the good thing about this crisis," Jones said. "The way people come together with the goal of relief to mitigate suffering and help a nation that's had a terrible tragedy kind of get over it."

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