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The Honolulu Advertiser

Updated at 2:32 p.m., Saturday, June 2, 2007

Ship departs Pearl Harbor for humanitarian mission

News Release

PEARL HARBOR - Pacific Partnership 2007 was officially launched yesterday when the USS Peleliu (LHA 5), a multi-mission amphibious ship, departed Pearl Harbor for Southeast Asia and Oceania.

The four-month humanitarian mission will bring together host nation medical personnel, partner nation military medical personnel and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to provide medical, dental, construction and other humanitarian-assistance programs ashore and afloat in the Philippines, Vietnam, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and the Marshall Islands.

In a brief pier-side ceremony before the ship's departure, Adm. Robert Willard, commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet, praised all involved with the mission, which continues the long tradition of U.S. Navy support of humanitarian-assistance programs throughout the world and reflects international compassion for the people of the Western Pacific region with whom many share common bonds.

"The United States is a Pacific nation, and as such, we share many interests, values and beliefs with our Pacific neighbors. As mariners, we have a tradition of rendering assistance to those in distress on the sea, and Pacific Partnership is a logical extension of these ideals," Willard said. "You are members of a unique team formed from organizations with very different skills and capabilities but unified in purpose to conduct a very important mission. You will carry the 'aloha' spirit of caring, commitment and compassion with you on this deployment for our Pacific neighbors."

Capt. Bruce Stewart, commander of the Pacific Partnership mission and commander of the Pearl Harbor-based Destroyer Squadron 31, opened the ceremony and welcomed all in attendance for participating in such an important occasion. He reiterated the importance of the mission and spoke of the diversity USS Peleliu brings to the mission.

"This is an exciting time for us. As we start writing the next chapter in U.S. history of conducting humanitarian operations, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, this great warship behind us, USS Peleliu, while built to maintain and operate across a full spectrum of warfare, has been outfitted and manned to conduct these humanitarian operations," Stewart said. "We have assembled a diverse team, many of them first responders to humanitarian disaster relief operations."

Dr. Carl Lum, mission commander for one of the participating NGOs, Aloha Medical Mission, joined Willard and Stewart for the celebratory send-off, echoing their comments on the importance of the Navy in humanitarian missions such as Pacific Partnership.

"(The Aloha Medical Mission) first encountered the Navy two years ago when volunteers were in Banda Aceh after the great earthquake and tsunami. We were treating survivors there, and we looked out and saw the hospital ship Mercy and the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln. They were carrying supplies to the devastated city and they were taking on patients," said Lum, a general surgeon in Honolulu. "In a time of war, the Navy is there defending our country. In a time of peace, being in a place like Banda Aceh, is the Navy at its best, providing humanitarian aid to the people in need."

Aloha Medical Mission, founded 20 years ago, was invited by the Navy a year later to support USNS Mercy humanitarian-assistance deployment.

Relationships with many of the NGOs, like Aloha Medical Mission, were forged in recent years during tsunami, mudslide and earthquake relief missions and during the USNS Mercy (T-AH 19) deployment in 2006. During Pacific Partnership, the Navy and its partners will build hospitals and schools, teach preventive medicine, and provide medical and dental assistance in support of participating host nations.

Willard recalled stories of last summer's Mercy deployment, demonstrating the profound affect the mission had on the region and previewing what the men and women of the Pacific Partnership will experience. Mara Haun, a 60-year-old Muslim mother of three in the Philippines, had been blinded by cataracts until her eyesight was returned by an American surgical team and local personnel on board Mercy, Willard remembered.

"In all of her adult life, Mrs. Haun had been afraid of the military. But, after the white gauze bandages were removed from her eyes, the first thing she said she wanted to see was, 'the faces of the people, who did this for me.'" Willard said.

Prior to sending Peleliu off on its mission, Willard also took the time to thank all the volunteers associated with the mission.

"Your service shows the generosity and humanity of people working together to establish a secure and stable tomorrow through their efforts today," he said. "You epitomize the commitment and dedication needed to make this world a better place. You bring hope to others, and you bring honor to us all. Thank you and Godspeed to this very important mission."

In addition to Aloha Medical Mission, other NGOs participating include Project Hope, The University of California San Diego Pre-Dental Society, and others present in the locations to be visited. Regional partners who have agreed to participate are Australia, Canada, India, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea and Singapore.

Peleliu's crew includes personnel from public health/preventive medicine; Navy, Army and Air Force medicine; U.S. Public Health Service; and the U.S. Navy Seabees (construction battalions), as well as a fleet surgical team.

USS Peleliu is home-ported in San Diego.