Burma is refusing deliveries of humanitarian aid from U.S. Navy ships, standing by off the Burmese coast. Washington's offer to help victims of Cyclone Nargis highlights the U.S. military's wider efforts to employ "soft power" in the region - something the Burmese junta views with suspicion. On board the ships, American sailors and Marines express frustration over not being able to help. VOA Southeast Asia Correspondent Luis Ramirez was aboard two of the ships and has this report.
A crew member reads back navigation information, as she steers the USS Essex, a 40,500-ton amphibious assault ship back and forth across the southwest coast of Burma, not far from the Irawaddy Delta.
The ship - one of four taking part in an American military operation dubbed Joint Task Force Caring Response - carries thousands of tons of fresh water and medicines.
On the deck, helicopters stand ready to deliver the supplies in a matter of minutes to some of the most remote areas of the hard-hit Irawaddy River Delta, where aid has yet to reach thousands. But the order to go has not been issued.
Burma's junta rejects any help from the ships. The government's newspaper, the New Light of Myanmar, suggests Burmese officials are suspicious that the United States could use its military presence on Burmese soil to invade the country. The Burmese generals have allowed a only a limited number of U.S. military cargo planes to deliver aid at the main city, Rangoon.
Lieutenant Colonel Scott Erdelatz is commanding officer of a combat logistics battalion on board the USS Harper's Ferry, another vessel in the flotilla. He says the American military's humanitarian efforts in places like Cambodia, Bangladesh and the Philippines do have a strategic purpose.
"We do planned humanitarian operations all over the Pacific and our goal in doing those is to support and strengthen our allies and influence so that we can act as a positive counter to negative influences like Muslim extremists in different parts of the world," said Erdelatz.
He says these Marines are not here to fight.
"There's a phrase that the First Marine Division," Erdelatz said. "It was their motto going into Iraq, years ago. It was 'no better friend, no worse enemy.' And, I think that describes young marines and sailors. Given an opportunity to help people and give back, they are willing to do that. And, when they're asked to fill another role and use their combat training, they're ready to do that, as well."
Below the deck of the Essex, Marine Corporal Preston McFarland watches as shipmates put bladders full of purified water into huge boxes. He says he joined the Marines thinking he would be spending all his time in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan.
"I came in a couple of years after the war started and that was what I was under the [impression] that I would be doing," said McFarland. "This is an opportunity to help a people in need of aid, as far as water and rebuilding homes. It shows that we not only are capable of defending our people in a wartime situation, but we can also provide aid in a natural disaster [to a] people not at war. It's really a good thing to be a part of."
Music over the ship's loudspeakers keeps the crew members' spirits high, despite their frustration about not being able to carry out their mission. Pentagon officials say the ships will continue to stand by and be ready to help, in case the Burmese leadership changes its mind. In the meantime, Captain Troy Hart, the executive officer of the USS Essex. says good intentions cannot be forced on anyone and delivering aid without permission is not an option.
"We came here to help we have a lot of capability and ability to help," he said. "It'll be frustrating if we don't get the opportunity to, but it's not the United States government's or military's position to go in and force help on a country that's not asking for it. So, we wait for their permission to bring the aid and we will be more than happy to do so to the utmost of our ability."
Navy Rear Admiral Carol Pottenger, on board the Essex, says it will be difficult for sailors and Marines to leave, if they get the order to abandon the operation without delivering precious relief supplies.
"We would all be disappointed," he said. "But, really, everyone understands that our government is doing everything they can do everything they can to talk to Burma to offer our assistance and so we would take it in stride. We would be disappointed. We know there is great loss of life. There is need in there, but we would just have to carry out our orders and redeploy, [and] get ready for the next one."
Thousands of liters of fresh water are sitting in the hold of the ship. If Burma does not give clearance for their delivery soon, crew members say the precious liquid may have to be dumped into the sea.