Looking at my schedule for April and May, I was excited to find out that the USS Cleveland would be coming to Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu as part of Pacific Partnership 2011. U.S. Embassy Port Moresby covers both of those nations, as well as the Solomon Islands, and I had been asked to help support Cleveland's visit. Last year, I was part of the embassy team that traveled with Pacific Partnership 2010 (PP2010) to Rabaul in Papua New Guinea's East New Britain province. My predecessor Kim Strollo, who now works for the U.S. Embassy in Rome, described working with Pacific Partnership as one of the best parts of her job, and she was right.
Pacific Partnership is an annual humanitarian assistance mission that has been sponsored by the U.S. Pacific Fleet. The mission first came together in the wake of the devastating tsunami that hit Indonesia in 2004. Key to the mission is fostering relationships with local officials, especially those engaged in disaster response and relief, and better preparing for earthquakes, tsunamis, and cyclones. The effort includes medical and dental treatment, as well as construction and engineering projects for schools and hospitals. This year, in addition to Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu, Pacific Partnership visits Tonga, Timor-Leste, and the Federated States of Micronesia.
Regardless of where it is held, Pacific Partnership events draw quite a lot of attention. In Vanuatu, people formed a line that was a quarter mile long, and it doubled back almost as far! Despite the long line, everyone waited patiently for the opportunity to see a doctor or dentist. That's because health services in the Pacific are rudimentary, even in urban areas. In remote areas, the problems of delivering and maintaining health care infrastructure, and supplies are an even bigger problem. Hence, one of U.S. Embassy Port Moresby's top priorities is advancing public health.
Some of the most common health problems are HIV/AIDS (Papua New Guinea has the highest rate of infection in the Pacific), malaria, tuberculosis, and diabetes. Maternal health is also a major issue. The figures are concerning. According to the Papua New Guinea Department of Health, 773 women out of 100,000 die giving birth. This places Papua New Guinea just behind Afghanistan as the nation with the worst health conditions in the Asia Pacific region. Conditions in the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu are equally challenging.
But back to Vanuatu. The USS Cleveland arrived off Espiritu Santo on April 28. Ambassador Teddy Taylor and I arrived in Luganville, the main city on Espirito Santo, the same day. The one-hour flight from Vanuatu's capital Port Vila gave us amazing views of the coral reefs and azure waters below. The weather was sunny and breezy, and later muggy with temperatures in the 90s (Fahrenheit). While the rays of the sun burned down intensely, the breeze was most welcome, especially riding in the back of the Pacific Partnership trucks that drove us around. I was pleasantly surprised with the good conditions of the roads. The U.S. government funded the $65 million Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) grant to Vanuatu that made construction of the East Coast Road in Santo and a ring road around the island of Efate, home to capital city Port Vila, possible. The grant has already made a big contribution to the local economy, enabling people in remote areas to get their produce to market and gain better access to health care, and educational and employment opportunities.
The Cleveland -- the flagship for PP2011 -- housed the command staff, the crew, representatives from non-government organizations, sailors, soldiers, marines, and airmen from each of the partner nations participating in PP2011. Representatives from Australia, Canada, France, New Zealand, and the United States were participating in the mission. Pacific Partnership seeks to work with as many potential sources of assistance as possible.
New Zealand played a major role this year. Its vessel, the HMNZS Canterbury, was also moored in Espiritu Santo. While the mission objectives in odd-numbered years do not include surgery, the New Zealand Defence Force's surgical team and ni-Vanuatu medical professionals were hard at work. Nevertheless, the medical procedures are truly team efforts. For example, to save the life of an injured tourist, New Zealand surgeons stabilized the patient in a ni-Vanuatu hospital, an American doctor then kept the patient stable while flying to the hospital in a French New Caledonian helicopter off the Canterbury, as an Australian general practitioner coordinated all of the resources.
Strengthening civil society is also an important aspect of the mission. The Seabees worked extremely well with the Vanuatu Mobile Force and local apprentices. The group built water catchments, classrooms, and new bathrooms for three of the schools.
Toward the end of the Tongan portion of Pacific Partnership, Captain Jesse Wilson, commodore of PP2011, shifted his command and a portion of his staff to Canterbury to have a first-hand look at operations. This was notable, as it was the first time that a U.S. naval afloat command shifted its pennant to a New Zealand ship. The New Zealanders hosted us for an onboard reception, and they really know how to throw a party. While a band performed foot-tapping rock-n-roll numbers, waiters (crew members) dressed in white passed around delectable bites that included New Zealand lamb and salmon. Naturally, I was not averse to partaking in some of New Zealand's Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc wines, recognized among the best in the world. For the Pacific Partnership team, the reception represented a well-deserved break.
In 10 days, the multinational and multi-service Pacific Partnership team engaged local leaders, treated 6,068 medical patients, including 25 surgeries by the NZDF surgical team; 676 dental patients; cared for 118 animals; completed four engineering projects, including school buildings, bathrooms, and a water catchment system; and engaged in 13 community service projects. More than 1,600 host nationals came to these events, during which they and representatives from the partner nations spent over 3,100 contact hours exchanging methods, skills and ideas.
It was certainly an exciting trip that enabled me to participate in actions that had a real impact on people's lives. It does not get any better than that!