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Civil affairs Soldiers begin tsunami relief work

By Sgt. Kyle Cosner

ROYAL THAI NAVAL AIR BASE, UTAPAO, Thailand (Army News Service Jan. 24, 2005) -- U.S. Army civil affairs Soldiers arrived the week of Jan. 18 to provide humanitarian assistance to those in Southeast Asia affected by the Dec. 26 tsunami, three weeks after more than 160,000 died and many more suffered in its wake.

A dozen Soldiers with the 96th Civil Affairs Battalion's (Airborne) Detachment 220 are at work in Thailand, Sri Lanka and Indonesia to assist Combined Support Force 536 with civil affairs and civil-military operations in support of Operation Unified Assistance, said Maj. Gerry Messmer, the detachment's commander.

The 96th CA Bn., an Army special operations unit based at Fort Bragg, N.C., is the service's only active-duty civil affairs outfit.

Messmer said the Soldiers are divided into three teams of four men each: two teams are Civil Affairs Teams - A and one is a Civil Affairs Team - B. CAT-As are operational, on-the-ground civil affairs teams, while a CAT-B is essentially a small civil affairs planning and operations headquarters. Each has a civil affairs officer, a team sergeant, an engineer and a medic.

The CAT-As are in Sri Lanka and Indonesia, while the CAT-B, Messmer's element, is stationed at the air base here, he said.

In both combat and peacetime operations, Army civil affairs Soldiers routinely work with foreign aid agencies, such as the U.S. Agency for International Development, and nongovernmental organizations to identify areas of greatest need. They are the military link between such organizations and those they desire to assist; often, the civil affairs Soldiers are the only force with the capability of conducting initial and extended need assessments in certain high-risk or hard-to-access areas, Messmer said.

Potential unified assistance civil affairs projects include reinvigorating the fishing industry, identifying build projects, debris cleanup and trauma counseling for families torn apart by the tsunami, he said.

"Probably the most important thing we can do here is convert the military pipeline into the civilian pipeline for long-term sustainment," Messmer said, although "another important mission is relocating (displaced) people to their hometowns."

Civil affairs Soldiers serve as a military commander's liaison with NGOs to do all that, and more.

Already, on its first day of work, the CAT-A in Sri Lanka identified 40 tons of relief supplies that were sitting unused in a warehouse.

In time, according to Messmer, after the media attention on the situation goes away and short-term conventional disaster relief operations are completed, there will still be plenty of work left for his Soldiers.

"For us, there is a potential for a follow-on mission to support reconstruction projects (in the region)," Messmer said.

He added that no matter how the situation on the ground transforms, the civil affairs Soldiers are capable of self-sustaining in the region for up to six months or more.

"(The III Marine Expeditionary Force) could pick up and leave tomorrow, and we'd be able to continue on with our mission," Messmer said.

That, Messmer said, is because the structure of his unit is ideal for the think-on-the-go nature of the large-scale humanitarian aid projects needed in this region.

"I really think four-man teams are best suited to a situation like this," Messmer said. He said the teams' mobile, low profile nature allows them to accomplish a lot, while leaving little or no military footprint.

These same civil affairs Soldiers recently completed a six-month deployment to Afghanistan, and again are involved in a deployment with the potential to extend well into the future - for another six months, or more. Soldiers from the battalion are also deployed to the U.S. Central Command area of operations in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.

"You can't help but want to help when you see the level of devastation on the ground here," Messmer said. "My guys are willing to put their lives on hold to do this."

Messmer said that his team's accomplishments in Southeast Asia would make their presence worthwhile, despite the high personal costs.

In any case, he said with a smile, it's not as if these busy civil affairs Soldiers would have had a choice anyway.

"As soon as I saw it on the news, I figured I should start packing. I actually got a warning order to get ready that night," Messmer said.

International efforts to minimize suffering and mitigate loss of life resulting from the effects of the earthquake and tsunami continue as the combined support force of host nations, civilian aid organizations and U.S. Department of Defense work together to provide humanitarian assistance in support of Operation Unified Assistance.

For more information, visit the U.S. Pacific Command's Unified Assistance Web site at http://www.pacom.mil and the U.S. Army Special Operations Command's Web site at http://www.soc.mil.

(Editor's note: Sgt. Kyle Cosner is assigned to the U.S. Army Special Operations Command.)

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