Thursday, August 19, 2010

Navy Choppers Provide Aid to Pakistani Flood Victims

By Ian Graham
Emerging Media, Defense Media Activity

Aug. 19, 2010 - As flooding continues to plague Pakistan, the U.S. Navy is providing helicopters from a detachment in Bahrain to carry supplies into the stricken country's Swat valley.

Members of the Navy's Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron 15 Detachment 2 spoke in a "DoD Live" bloggers roundtable today to explain the ins and outs of their mission.

To date, the U.S. has pledged to provide more than $76 million in assistance to flood-affected people in Pakistan. Twenty-two U.S. military and civilian aircraft are in Pakistan in support of flood relief operations. U.S. helicopters have evacuated more than 5,000 people and delivered more than 500,000 pounds of relief supplies.

In addition, U.S. military cargo aircraft based in Afghanistan have transported more than 268,000 pounds of international aid from the Pakistani air force's central flood relief cell in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, to other locations throughout the country.

In the past five days, HM-15 and its MH-53E "Sea Dragon" aircraft have been able to evacuate more than 1,600 people and deliver more than 271,000 pounds of food and other relief supplies. The unit has been at Ghazi Air Base for a week, but rain and cloud cover limited their ability to get to the people in Swat.

Navy Lt. Sean Snyder, one of HM-15's pilots, said the high altitudes have been difficult to get accustomed to. The aircraft responds differently to the thinner air at higher altitudes, he explained, so controlling the helicopter under a full load has been harder than it would be regularly.

"It's been a challenge getting the mission done every day," he said. "Had it been a sea-level situation, we probably could have doubled [the amount of evacuations and deliveries]."

Although Snyder and crew member Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Kevin Strickhouser operate only in one area, they said the widespread damage has been apparent as they fly over the country. The fact that the United Nations is pressing for more aid and more organizations are rallying to help the country is heartening, they said.

HM-15 is doing fine moving things, Strickhouser said, but any more help would be appreciated.

"Anything anybody can send won't be enough to stop the suffering that people are going through right now; I don't think that there's anything that can be done [to fix things right away]," Snyder said. "The more they can provide, so the assets can be spread out to help the whole country, would be very useful."

Snyder said his crew and the other MH-53E's crew from HM-15 have been working tirelessly to carry food and get as many people out of harm's way as possible. Usually, Snyder said, about five trips to and from the valley can be made daily by each aircraft. Though concerns have been raised that the Taliban in the area may somehow be using the flood to their advantage by helping people as a recruitment tool, there's no indication the insurgents are providing assistance, Snyder said.

"Other than what we're taking in and what the Pakistani government is providing, I haven't seen any other groups doing any assistance," Snyder said, adding that he has seen nothing of the Taliban firsthand or anecdotally. "People from the World Food Program are here, but I haven't seen anything else."

Strickhouser added that there has been little disruption of any kind to missions beyond the bad weather on their arrival. The Pakistani army is providing security and has landing zones prepared for U.S. aircraft, and generally the people waiting for aid have been orderly outside the established landing perimeter.

"We're only there for a short period of time before they take off, so they don't see a lot on the ground throughout the day," he said, "but there haven't been any problems. The only people who approach the aircraft are there to get the food we're bringing, and they take it to the others outside our perimeter."

Meanwhile, Snyder and Strickhouser said, members of the U.S. military, the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development and a collection of nongovernment organizations continue to provide assistance to stricken Pakistanis.

"The Pakistani government determines where they need U.S. aid, and then the U.S. decides if they're able to help there with the equipment they have," Strickhouser said.

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