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American Forces Press Service

Keating: NORTHCOM Experience Lends Lessons to Bangladesh Relief

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 27, 2007 – After more than two years at the helm of U.S. Northern Command, Navy Adm. Timothy J. Keating oversaw planning for military responses to the most devastating domestic disasters, and mobilized U.S. military support when Hurricane Katrina provided a real-life test of those plans.

So when his staff at U.S. Pacific Command watched a fierce tropical cyclone make its way toward Bangladesh earlier this month, Keating, now the top U.S. military officer in the Pacific, kept a careful watch.

Even before the cyclone made landfall Nov. 15, Keating had already started talking with leaders at the Pentagon, State Department and U.S. Embassy in Dhaka, Bangladesh, about a potential response in the event the Bangladeshis needed help.

“We began to look at assets that might be of assistance if the host nation asked for them,” he told reporters today via teleconference from his headquarters at Camp H.M. Smith, Hawaii.

Keating asked U.S. Central Command for permission to borrow one of its ships, USS Kearsarge, and its 1,200 Marines aboard who were operating in the North Arabian Sea in case they were needed to support relief operations. He got the Air Force to begin positioning heavy-life aircraft at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, so they’d be ready to deliver reverse-osmosis water purification units, if needed.

He kept his staffs’ eyes glued on the storm, directing them to gather as much information as possible so they could quickly pass it, along with damage assessments, along to the U.S. Embassy.

“We got stuff moving,” Keating said. “As the storm was ashore and clearing, we had assets.”

When the cyclone passed, leaving vast devastation and more than 3,200 dead and more than 1,000 others missing, Pacific Command was ready to respond. All it needed was the Bangladeshi government to accept U.S. offers of help.

Keating called his lessons learned at U.S. Northern Command “of significant import to us in this situation,” giving him the tools to look ahead of the crisis to help prepare a response. “The events of Katrina and humanitarian assistance disaster relief we learned at Northern Command were of significant value for us here.”

As he was returning to Hawaii Nov. 24 after a Thanksgiving visit to Iraq, Keating stopped in Bangladesh to meet with Bangladeshi and U.S. officials to discuss the need there and offer help.

Keating said he made it clear that the United States has no intention of taking charge. “We are attempting the best we can to make sure the Bangladeshis understand it is their operation,” he said. “We are in support. We will do nothing they don’t ask for and when they are done with us, we will leave.”

The Bangladeshis, desperate to get support into regions in the south where roads had been wiped out, accepted the offer “warmly,” Keating said. “I got no sense of stepping on toes,” he said.

Today, the U.S. military is rushing aid to the region, focusing on getting water and medical aid to areas in greatest need, Keating said.

“Water is the overarching requirement,” Keating said, noting that the surge resulting from the Nov. 15 tropical cyclone left fresh-water ponds in Bangladesh tainted with salt. While ships in the region manufacture potable water, the Air Force has delivered three reverse-osmosis water purification units, he said. One is in Bangladesh, and two are in Thailand, awaiting direction from the Bangladeshis on where to place them.

The 1,200-member 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit operating from USS Kearsarge already has flown several dozen relief sorties to get water and other aid to outlying areas, he said. More than 50,000 pounds of aid have been moved into Bangladesh.

Meanwhile, U.S. medical personnel are on site, lending surgeons, corpsmen, anesthesiologists, nurses and other medical staff to the effort. Keating said the Kearsarge stands ready to offer its hospital facilities, but that they haven’t yet been needed.

USS Tarawa also is headed to the region, but Keating said its services may not be required to provide relief support.

Keating said all support is being offered with an understanding of the diplomatic implications, and the fact that some in Bangladesh might have initially been “a little leery of U.S. operations” there. The United States is ensuring that the Bangladeshis understand “we are in support of them,” he said. “And we will do nothing that is not at the behest of Bangladesh.”

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