About the Author: Tom Weinz served as the Foreign Service Liaison Officer (FSLO) aboard the USNS Richard E. Byrd for Pacific Partnership 2009 (PP09).Pacific Partnership (PP09) is in Kiribati (pronounced “keer-ah-bhas”), whose principal atoll, Tarawa, is another infamous name from World War II. The Battle of Tarawa in late 1943 was among the bloodiest fighting of the Pacific campaign and a turning point for the war in the Central Pacific.
When I visited Tarawa as part of the site-survey team in March of this year, it was apparent that this location would challenge our mission more than any of the others. Tarawa is comprised of a ribbon of islets joined by simple stone and concrete causeways; the small islet of Betio at the extreme southwest of Tarawa is the focus of much of PP09 local medical outreach. Betio is the densest urban settlement in the Pacific Islands, with 26,000 people living in very basic conditions.
Many I-Kiribati (pronounced “ee-keer-ah-bhas”), as people of the country are known, have already been resettled to other areas and countries. The waters of the Pacific are rising, and gradually turning drinking water brackish and farmland saline. President Anote Tong has been brutally honest about the future of Kiribati. He reflected in 2008, “To plan for the day when you no longer have a country is indeed painful, but I think we have to do that.”
While on USNS Byrd, I was very impressed with the numbers of volunteers taking part in daily community relations projects (COMRELS). I am now looking at the final report for COMRELS in the Solomon Islands, where the USS Mustin was also in port for Guadalcanal Day. COMRELS are staffed entirely by volunteers who have other full-time jobs. In the Solomon Islands, civilian mariners, sailors from the Mustin, Australian Army, Navy and Air Force personnel, Navy SeaBees, PacFleet Band members, NGO volunteers and local citizens banded together to complete 27 different projects over 13 days.
During my experience with very different Pacific Partnership missions over the past three years, one constant has been the ever expanding role of COMRELS, directed by the different Pacific Partnership Chaplains, and developing into a “Come One, Come All” multinational team responsible for significant accomplishments, such as laying pipe for a school water system and other water-improvement or catchment projects. U.S. Peace Corps volunteers have joined these teams in the past; the Peace Corps withdrew from Kiribati in 2008, after forty-one years in the country. The COMRELS planned for Kiribati are as ambitious as those completed in Solomon Islands, thanks to the many volunteers who are serving in them.