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US Military Committed to Haiti Aid Effort

In this 21 Jan 2010 photo, Lt. Jerri Gram, from Huntsville, Ala., a doctor aboard the Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Comfort, shares a smile with a female infant during an examination off the coast of Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

The Haiti earthquake created a huge and urgent need for water, food, medicine and other services - a need that required an international governmental and private response. But the only organization with the kind of capability to deliver the magnitude of relief supplies and personnel that were needed was the U.S. military.

It is not unusual for the U.S. military to respond to a disaster like the Haiti earthquake. The military sent relief to the Asian Tsunami in 2004, Hurricane Katrina in the southern United States in 2005 and many other natural disasters.

"We're training for readiness which includes trauma and war surgery. We're also trained to do humanitarian assistance," said Vice Admiral Adam Robinson, the Surgeon General of the U.S. Navy. He is responsible for providing the thousands of Navy doctors, nurses and other medical professionals who sped to Haiti on ships and aircraft to care for the wounded. The U.S. Navy's hospital ship Comfort is the largest of the medical facilities, and is now anchored just off shore near Port-au-Prince, able to handle as many as 1,000 patients.

Other U.S. military services are providing medical help on shore, operating the airport, working to re-open the sea port, transporting thousands of tons of supplies, and helping distribute them by road and helicopter throughout the Haitian capital and beyond.

The effort has been remarkably smooth. Although there are reports of shortages in some areas, the distribution has been generally lacking in violent incidents or confrontations. The commander of the U.S. military relief effort in Haiti, Lieutenant General Ken Keen, says his troops made a particular effort to make clear to the people they are there to help, not to conquer.

"In most cases we have sufficient translators to get them to platoon level, if not lower, both French and Creole, so that we can communicate effectively with the civic leaders, explain to them what we're doing, so they understand what we're there for and what we're trying to accomplish," he said.

Admiral Robinson of the Navy medical corps says anyone who is concerned the U.S. military will stay any longer than it is needed or wanted will just have to watch and see what happens in the coming months, which he says will mirror what the military did in Indonesia and elsewhere.

"I think that everyone will see, and this is where you're going to have to just look at our actions. We'll move in. We'll help. And then we're going to move out," he said.

Still, Admiral Robinson estimates the Haitians will need help for six to 12 months, although less help than the more than 20 ships and 20,000 troops that are on land and at sea in the area now.

Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell says top officials are discussing the future of the U.S. military and civilian role in Haiti, now that the immediate needs have largely been taken care of and systems are in place for aid to continue to flow.

"We as a government and we as a military are committed to seeing this through and helping the Haitian people get back on their feet after this horrific natural disaster. But what precisely that means, and how many forces are there doing what kinds of things for how long and at what kind of expense, are precisely the discussions that are being had within this building and within the administration right now," he said.

But Admiral Robinson says there is no rush to leave before the job is done.

"From a military medical perspective, we're going to stay down [there] as long as it takes in order to make sure that we have competent medical help for the people that need it," he said.

So for now, and for the foreseeable future, the effort continues, with U.S. troops working alongside American civilians, troops and civilians from other countries, and with Haitians themselves, to help the country's people recover from the devastating earthquake.