Kearsarge’s Latin American humanitarian cruise
tests new U.S. military ‘soft power’ concepts
By DAVID AXE, Special Correspondent
To Chief Warrant Officer Chris Pienkowski,
combat cargo officer aboard the amphibious
assault ship USS Kearsarge, one pallet is the
same as another.
“A piece of gear is a piece of gear,” he said, barely
looking up from the paperwork on his desk Aug. 9 in
his office deep in Kearsarge’s bowels.
It’s Pienkowski’s job to decide where to put things in
the ship’s roughly 100,000 cubic feet of cargo space.
When the 15-year-old vessel is carrying its usual contingent of 2,200 Marines, plus all their weapons and
equipment — not to mention gear for an aviation
attachment of up to 30 helicopters — storing everything can be like doing a puzzle, where the pieces each
weigh hundreds or thousands of pounds.
But, like he said, gear is gear. So when Kearsarge was
ordered to leave its Marines and usual flotilla of escorting warships behind and instead sail unescorted to
Latin America to pursue a radical new “soft power”
strategy, it didn’t make any difference to Pienkowski.
Instead of storing combat vehicles and ammunition,
the combat cargo team crammed in pallets of medical
equipment, generators, construction
vehicles, lumber, tools and $600,000
worth of donated medicine. Below
decks, the 840-foot assault ship
looked like a cross between a hospital store room and a Home Depot.
Over four months, beginning in
early August, Kearsarge planned to
visit Nicaragua, Colombia, Panama,
the Dominican Republic, Trinidad
and Tobago and Guyana, delivering
free medical and engineering assistance to isolated, impoverished
populations. It was actually the second phase of Operation Continuing
Promise, which began in May when
the amphibious assault ship USS
Boxer made a humanitarian run
down the Pacific side of Central and South America,
eventually treating around 14,000 patients and conducting 127 surgeries, while an accompanying force of
Seabees rebuilt eight schools and repaired roads.
Continuing Promise is just a single chapter in a
much broader U.S. military “medical diplomacy” initiative in Latin America that began in earnest in summer 2007 with the four-month deployment of the hospital ship USNS Comfort. That trip resulted in some
impressive figures: 1,170 surgeries, 32,322 immunizations and 24,242 pairs of eye glasses handed out.
In September 2007, the amphibious assault ship USS
Wasp followed up with emergency medical and engineering assistance to Nicaragua in the wake of
Hurricane Felix, ultimately delivering some 10 tons of
rice, 5,000 gallons of potable water and tons of food,
tarps and blankets, according to U.S. Southern
Command. Future medical diplomacy cruises to Latin
America already are being planned.
For Pienkowski, Kearsarge’s humanitarian mission is
business as usual. But for the Pentagon brass who conceived it, the senior officers who lead it, the doctors and
USS Kearsarge is conducting civil-military operations that include
humanitarian and civic assistance; veterinary, medical and dental
services; and civil engineering support to six partner nations in
■ The mission is an example of “soft power,” a concept emphasized in “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower.”
■ Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in a Nov. 26 speech at Kansas
State University, said the United States must strengthen its “
capacity to use ‘soft’ power and for better integrating it with ‘hard’ power.”
■ Gates defined soft power as “America’s ability to engage,
assist and communicate with other parts of the world.”