USS IWO JIMA ANCHORS OFF HAITI'S NORTHERN COAST TO PROVIDE AID, RELIEF
(Miami Herald) - By Trenton Daniel
Hurricane response for quake-devastated Haiti is among the mandates for the USS Iwo Jima.
ABOARD THE USS IWO JIMA, OFF THE COAST OF HAITI -- As the sun climbed in the Caribbean sky Wednesday, a trio of choppers picked up several dozen military personnel and civilians from this warship and deployed them across the waters into one of the country's most downtrodden corners.
But they weren't there for conflict. They were there for good deeds.
As the Pentagon seeks to broaden its mandate to include humanitarian missions, the USS Iwo Jima is anchored off Haiti's north coast to provide healthcare, ferry cargo for more than 20 nongovernmental organizations and offer training for the armed forces.
Its presence also serves another purpose: It will be the U.S. military's first response should storms thrash Haiti this hurricane season as it seeks to recover from a massive earthquake on Jan. 12.
Called the worst natural disaster in modern times, the quake killed an estimated 300,000 people and sent another 1.5 million into homeless camps constructed of flimsy tarps and tents that are poised to topple at even the slightest rainfall or wind.
The 844-foot Navy ship, equipped to swiftly move personnel and cargo by helicopter and landing craft, carries more than 1,600 military and civilian personnel, including medical, dental and engineering professionals from Canada, Chile, Paraguay, Germany and the Netherlands.
Humanitarian work will coincide with preparations for calamity.
``Disaster response is a primary role for this mission,'' Capt. Tom Negus told a small group of reporters Tuesday evening.
Negus couldn't say why the Pentagon opted to stage operations in northern Haiti, rather than off the quake-devastated areas of the Port-au-Prince capital and surrounding cities.
Military commanders planned the mission before the earthquake, he said.
While helping Haiti is a priority, the ship will also deploy personnel to eight other countries in the hemisphere as part of ``Continuing Promise,'' the fifth deployment in four years under the authority of the U.S. Southern Command in Miami-Dade.
Other destinations include the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba, Colombia, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Suriname.
The mission began the first week of July and ends the third week of November, after the height of the hurricane season has passed.
Although the ship will veer away from hurricane-prone Haiti for its deployments next week, military officials say it won't be too far should a storm take aim at the country.
``No matter where we are, we're a couple days away,'' Negus said.
Now a crew of 150-plus medical professionals is aboard to treat Haitian patients for cataracts, hernias and potentially cancerous lumps for eight days. The team is comprised of 50 doctors, dentists, and ophthalmologists and another 100 nurses and technicians.
Medical personnel screened the patients in the nearby seaside towns of Port-de-Paix and Saint Louis du Nord for cases they could treat before the ship's departure.
As of Wednesday, seven Haitian patients had received minor surgery. The same day, 14 more patients were brought aboard.
In some ways, the mission serves as a trial run, a way for doctors to realize what they need and don't need should a hurricane strike Haiti.
``I do know we're missing orthopedics,'' said Capt. Michael Hopkins, Iwo Jima's senior medical officer.
The medical facility is capable of holding 62 patients, but could absorb more should a disaster strike Haiti.
Among the patients who were treated was Innocent Charles, a 51-year-old whose worsening vision in his right eye threatened his livelihood as a mason. He visited mission surgeons in his hometown of Port-de-Paix, a coastal city 100 miles north of Port-au-Prince, after he heard about the program on local radio.
``After two weeks, I will be able to see correctly in my eye again,'' said Charles, sporting a smile and pair of aviator sunglasses to shield his eyes.
Lt. Cmdr. Catherine Hagan, a Miami native and ophthalmologist who lives in Ocala, treated Charles.
Ophthalmologists like Hagan are likely to treat hurricane survivors for torn eyelids and scratched eyes instead of cataracts and glaucoma, however.
``We're ready to do anything,'' she said.