About the Author: Tom Weinz is the dedicated Foreign Service Liaison Officer (FSLO) aboard the USNS Richard E. Byrd for Pacific Partnership 2009 (PP09).Pacific Partnership's second mission is to the Kingdom of Tonga, approximately 500 miles south of Samoa. USNS Byrd arrived in the early morning darkness of July 13 (Samoa is just east of the international dateline, and Tonga is just west of it. It is exactly the same time of day in Tonga as in Samoa — but one day later) and we awoke to grey skies and heavy rain. As with Samoa, our movement of equipment and materials to shore was hampered by weather.
Tonga is a country of 170 islands (about 40 of which are inhabited) with a population of just over 100,000 people. Our mission sites are all concentrated on islands in the Ha’apai group, roughly in the middle of Tongan territory and the least developed and accessible of Tonga’s three island groups. Because the waters near Pangai, the largest city in the area, are too shallow for the Byrd, all movement to and from shore is by Australian landing craft, helicopter, and by Byrd’s Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats, or RHIBs.
July 13 witnessed a flurry of activity, putting all medical and engineering equipment into place on shore. Thanks to significant advance work by Tongan Defence Services (TDS) personnel, who demolished parts of buildings and installed several new corrugated metal roofs prior to our arrival, PP09 engineers will be able to complete more projects during the mission. (Note the Brit/Aus spelling of “defence.” Tonga’s military is highly respected for their discipline and professionalism. Tongan Royal Marines served in Iraq with U.S. forces, and TDS soldiers serve currently with the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands, or RAMSI.)
On July 14, with ENCAPS, MEDCAPS and DENCAPS fully under way, a group of us participated in the opening ceremonies at a local school. The Reverend Doctor Tevita Palefau, Minister of Education, Women’s Affairs & Culture, noted in his opening address that, in spite of serious economic concerns in the United States, America still cares enough about others to carry out this mission. Since Tonga spends 28% of its annual budget on health and education, he said, Tongans are especially appreciative of the PP09 assistance. Local school children, some in classes conducted by American Peace Corps volunteers, took an active role in the opening ceremonies. As always, we are most grateful for a propitious beginning and a warm local reception.