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Humanitarian aid has strategic benefits, too, military leaders say

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TAMPA — From large-scale aid missions like the response to Typhoon Haiyan to an isolated team of Green Berets helping others, providing disaster relief and medical assistance has benefits for the U.S. as well as those being helped.

So much so that military involvement in such endeavors has become part of Pentagon planning, members of a panel at the Special Operations Medical Association Scientific Assembly in Tampa said Sunday.

It’s all part of what the past two Secretaries of State and a former Secretary of Defense have called “Smart Power” – combining the might of weapons with efforts like Global Health Engagement to achieve U.S. interests around the globe.

Major efforts, like the Marines who provided disaster relief in the Philippines, not only earn the nation goodwill but help the U.S. gain access and information and are useful for friendly nations, said Warner Anderson, director of International Health for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs.

On a smaller scale, there are other benefits, said Anderson, who is also a combat veteran. For example, a medic from a Green Beret team is not allowed to gather intelligence but can get information from a village chief about an area that might not be safe to go to, he said.

Such side benefits of providing assistance, he said, are not lost on the Chinese, who have launched their own hospital ship, called the “Peace Ark.” The ship not only provides medical care but also gives the Chinese access to waters in which its warships might be challenged. Two years ago, the Peace Ark visited Cuba.

“If you are packing up a hospital ship and moving 6,000 or 8,000 miles, you are mobilizing an expeditionary capability of a field hospital without going to war,” Anderson said during a session break. “That’s a great training exercise.”

Anderson recently returned from Saudi Arabia, where he attended an International Committee on Military Medicine conference. An increased Chinese presence there, along with the Peace Ark trip to Cuba, “looks to me like worldwide engagement,” he said.

For the military, the intersection of security and stability, of which health care plays a major role, has a long history, said Craig Llewellyn, a retired Special Forces colonel who became founding director of the Center for Disaster and Humanitarian Assistance Medicine. Green Berets, he said, helped villagers in Vietnam and Laos with their health and medical issues.

Navy Capt. David A. Tarantino Jr. said the health and relief efforts are “true” Pentagon missions. They are “a real and current mission – governed by a number of existing and forthcoming policies,” Tarantino said. He said miltary leaders incorporate medical stability operations into many levels of planning.

Anderson noted there is an inherent tension in such endeavors for medical professionals.

While they are supposed to remain neutral and humanitarian as medical professionals, military requirements often conflict.

Military medical professionals “have to be very, very careful about these things,” Anderson said. “We can’t do intentional harm and now we are finding that we have to guard against doing unintentional harm. Health care is a way to get people’s attention, to present ourselves in a positive light. We have to do positive things and be careful of unintended consequences.”

haltman@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7629

@haltman

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