About the Author: Tom Weinz served as the Foreign Service Liaison Officer (FSLO) aboard the USNS Richard E. Byrd for Pacific Partnership 2009 (PP09).
From May 4 to 8 of this year the United States and the Republic of the Philippines co-sponsored an ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) disaster response exercise. Twenty-six ARF countries joined in a civilian-led, military supported activity involving the demonstration and execution of medical, engineering, land, air, and maritime capabilities of ARF’s participants. This exercise, as the Pacific Partnership missions, eventuated from the terrible tragedy of the December 2004 tsunami, which horrified the world. And it demonstrates the strong collective commitment to prepare for such an event in the future. One of the recommendations that emerged following the exercise was that any future ARF exercise “…include MEDCAP, ENCAP or VETCAP projects to bring tangible benefits to the hosting nation’s population.” That, in essence, is the definition of Pacific Partnership.
On September 2, the Pacific Partnership team cut a ribbon to open their most ambitious ENCAP construction project of this mission. For some years a major bridge connecting North Tarawa from the rest of the atoll has been dangerously semi-collapsed, preventing the 5,000 i-Kiribati (pronounced “ee-keer-ah-bhas”) living in the north from full access to most services in South Tarawa, including medical, supply and access to the international airport. During consultations over the past year, I have heard the naval engineers discussing every aspect of this impressive effort: now it is reality. Since arrival of the USNS Byrd on August 23, engineers have dismantled and removed the existing 186-foot/56.7-meter bridge. The new bridge was manufactured in England and shipped to Kiribati (pronounced “keer-ah-bhas”) in eight 20-foot sea containers, along with two 7-ton trucks and two heavy lift telehandler forklifts to move the sections out of and into position across the water. This effort brilliantly meshes a real-world need with an “exercise” in transporting and building in an area that completely lacks local infrastructure — which would be the case in most future disaster scenarios.
When USNS Byrd sailed towards the Republic of the Marshall Islands on September 5, it left thousands of inhabitants of Kiribati with a little better life. The physical bridge has a figurative counterpart, signifying a more compassionate, more involved international community that, in spite of daunting domestic economic challenges, continues to reach out to peoples and countries of the world who need and appreciate benevolent neighbors. Our future needs both types of bridges.