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Sailors and marines complete massive US-led humanitarian mission in the Pacific

13 December 2023
British sailors, marines and soldiers joined the world’s largest humanitarian and goodwill mission.

They joined the US Navy-led Pacific Partnership – a six month deployment across swathes of the Pacific – delivering assistance, guidance, training, education and culture to thousands of people in more than half a dozen nations.

The Royal Navy provided the deployment’s deputy commander, plus divers, a medical planner, a dental nurse, infectious diseases specialist and a Royal Marines communications instructor, while the Army supplied a combat engineer, a security force assistance liaison officer (working alongside the disaster relief team) and a piper.

Born out of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, Pacific Partnership is a unique goodwill mission centred on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief readiness (hence the motto ‘Prepare in Calm to Respond In Crisis’ – but embracing medical assistance and aid, throwing in some construction projects and even cultural events.

This is the 19th year the deployment has been run, directed from the amphibious ship USS Pearl Harbor – similar to the Royal Navy’s HMS Albion and Bulwark – and supported at times by the littoral combat ship USS Jackson, Japan’s JS Shimokita and South Korea’s ROKS Chan Ja Bong.

Pacific Partnership is vast in scope – countries visited include Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Samoa, Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Tonga – and length: USS Pearl Harbor left San Diego in June and returns in time for Christmas.

At the core of the deployment have been 1,500 personnel, mostly from the US, but bolstered by experts from Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan, Republic of Korea, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.

In recent years, a Royal Navy officer has acted as the mission’s deputy commander.

This year the honour befell Lynx/Wildcat aviator Captain Joe Dransfield, who’s seconded to the US Navy for the duration of Pacific Partnership.

He’s been responsible for leading the planning and execution of a complex, frequently-changing mission, and acting as a diplomat/ambassador for both the UK and US.

“This is an incredibly rich and diverse mission,” Captain Dransfield said. “The mixture of accents, languages, cultures and uniforms, united in common goals, has been unbelievably rewarding to be part of.”

“From calling on ministers to reassuring kids about to receive treatment. From giving blood to playing rugby. From Search and Rescue training to taking part in fascinating cultural ceremonies. This is a mission that is all about humanity and diplomacy. We have built bridges and made a genuine difference. A real once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

In Fiji Surgeon Commander Matt O’Shea – a consultant in infectious diseases and clinical microbiology at the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine and associate clinical professor in the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Immunology – and his US Navy counterparts shared their knowledge to assist local military and civilian doctors, took part in a discussion about Covid with more than 1,000 people and encouraged the country’s clinical, research and education institutions to work more closely together.

‘It was fascinating to get an insight into the Fijian ways of working and then to see where we could work together to build their skills and resilience,” Matt said. “A really rewarding experience and I have made some professional linkages that I hope we can build upon in the future.”

A really rewarding experience and I have made some professional linkages that I hope we can build upon in the future.

Commander Matt O’Shea

Fellow RN medic Lieutenant Michelle Carter from the Defence School of Healthcare Education – was also heavily engaged in Fiji, as well as Nuku'alofa, Tonga.

She contributed to a number of medical engagements, including community health fairs, advanced lifesaving training focusing on ‘stopping the bleed’, and encouraged women that there’s a fulfilling career open to them at sea (a ‘women in maritime’ seminar in Fiji), or in science, technology, engineering and maths (a STEM symposium in Tonga).

“The STEM events at the high schools gave us opportunities to talk to many kids offering advice and answer all kinds of questions about the Navy,” she said.
“The kids were very engaging and I personally loved the display of song and dance that followed as an offer of thanks.”

In Malaysia, Lieutenant Matt Bowden and Petty Officer Stuart Ricketts shared their insights and expertise to show how clearance divers – who normally deal with mines and unexploded ordnance – could prove extremely useful in the aftermath of a disaster, such as using their handheld sonar.

Dental Nurse Jessica Gibbins – normally based in Gibraltar – joined a team of molar explorers at the National Referral Hospital in Honiara in the Solomon Islands sharing their knowledge and experience with local health care experts.

"I think this is a great opportunity for me and the dentists to provide care for people who maybe don't have dental care which is accessible,” she said.

“Hopefully we can leave a mark on the dental centre by sharing our experience and give patients a better experience dental-wise."

The final member of the Royal Navy contingent – and sole Royal Marine on Pacific Partnership – was communications specialist Corporal Joe Omlo, assigned specially to help Tongans should a major disaster strike their islands.

In January 2022 Tonga was hit simultaneously by a volcanic explosion and an undersea landslip, triggering a tsunami. All undersea connections to the kingdom were cut, leaving Tonga with no communications with the outside world.

They were given high-frequency long-range maritime communications in the wake of the disaster - but not the training to use them… which is where Joe stepped in.

He spent four days training Tongan Armed Forces and their civilian counterparts so they can make the most of their long range radios in the event of future disasters.

Joe said with the last disaster so close in people’s minds they were incredibly grateful for the assistance.

“To hear people talk about the devastation of the volcanic eruption and tsunami that battered the island just last year was unreal,” he added. “If we can make even a little bit of difference to their ability to bounce back quickly in the future then we will have done our job.”


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