by 1st Lt. Michael Trent Harrington
JBER Public Affairs
6/4/2015 - EASTERN HIGHLANDS PROVINCE, Papua New Guinea -- Seventy-two
years ago this month, gray banks of low fog split open in the highlands
of Papua New Guinea, bursting forth yellow tropical light and the
hollow plunk of imperial Japanese artillery.
On Monday, the six-nation team of Pacific Angel 15-4 arrived in the
Eastern Highlands Province allied against much longer-established
tropical enemies: disaster and disease.
The Pacific Angels - doctors, dentists, plumbers and planners from Papua
New Guinea, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines
and Indonesia - tumbled out of trucks Monday in Goroka, a town of 20,000
a mile above sea-level, to deliver humanitarian assistance and build
disaster relief abilities with the Papua New Guinea Defence Force.
The rumble of Japanese engines still punctuated the background hum of
jungle crickets, though now they were Toyotas and Nissans scrambling up
mountain roads joining highland villages for the first time. The thunder
came only from storm clouds, and "flame of the forest" was just the
local name for a scarlet climbing vine.
In a country that ranks 157th on the United Nations Human Development
Index and receives nearly U.S. $1 billion in foreign aid annually, the
few hundred thousand dollars dedicated to the crew and equipment of the
Pacific Angel Papua New Guinea mission are just a drop of sweat in the
fluctuating tide of aid funds to the country's shores.
Yet the value of the exchanges taking place in tropical medicine, public
health and engineering belie the relatively low bottom line. The
Pacific Angel approach encourages partner countries to build
relationships and make do with the resources available at the nearest
highlands hardware store - versus a Lowe's in California or an Army
supply depot in Hawaii.
Pacific Angel is about taking the complexity of managing peacetime in
Papua New Guinea and giving it a structure that might withstand worse,
said Air Force Lt. Col. Jim Fowler, the Pacific Angel Papua New Guinea
Pacific Angel missions to Nepal in 2012 and 2014, for instance, helped
more than 9,000 people in that country. More critically, the missions
brought together the Nepali, American, Australian and other military and
civilian aid agencies who later formed the joint task force that
responded to the chaos following the devastating earthquake near
Kathmandu six weeks ago.
"Disaster is chaotic enough," said Lt. Col. Courtney Finkbeiner, a U.S.
Air Force nurse and leader of the operation's medical subject matter
expert exchange teams. "All of the [Papua New Guinea] medical
professionals know how to care for patients; we only try to show them
how to organize in a crisis."
The operation helps Papua New Guinea military and civil health groups
recognize and cope with the complexity of a disaster, Finkbeiner said,
like the typhoons, tsunamis, earthquakes and floods characteristic of
the South Pacific.
A litany of American briefings and supply handouts might not resonate in
a country where conveniences like freeway-width roads and cross-country
shipping can't be taken for granted, even in the best of times.
Papua New Guinea is located in the Pacific "ring of fire," at the
collision point of several tectonic plates. Earthquakes, volcanic
eruptions and floods are a part of life here, which makes disaster
relief capabilities vital both to individual countries within the ring
and their neighbors.
The PNG National Disaster Centre, first developed in concert with the
U.N. Development Program, now has one of the most active disaster
response, mitigation and relief programs in the South Pacific.
"We have to leave our [Western] urge to instantly 'fix' everything at
home," said Air Force Col. Joseph Anderson, the Pacific Air Forces
command surgeon. "Instead of writing checks for equipment, we're
investing in sustainability."
The Pacific Angel mission attempts to build relationships, working more
with the people of Papua New Guinea's military and medical teams and
less with their gear.
"The time to exchange business cards is not at the scene of a disaster," Anderson added.
Appreciating that context of mutual reliance and assistance is critical to understanding the aid picture in the South Pacific.
John Donne wrote that "no man is an island." No country is an island, either, even if its geography consists of lots of them.
In that sense, Finkbeiner said, "if we did Power Points every day, we'd
entirely miss what it's all about, and what life here actually looks
The Pacific Angel approach emphasizes cooperation over one-way
instruction, building friendships which lead to cheaper and unexpectedly
"We all have different outlooks," said Philippine Army Capt. Donald
Palmer, a doctor with the Philippines Medical Corps, "but in a situation
like Pacific Angel, we have to consult with each other. We take our
[national] experiences and turn them into multilateral ability, where
each country can help the other."
In the initial days of the mission, U.S. and Papua New Guinean
biomedical equipment technicians - repairmen for sensitive and expensive
hospital machines - made the rounds of a military hospital outside Port
Moresby, the capital.
A rediscovered screw brought one stalwart machine built in the 1960s
back into order. Repairing a single broken switch on another faulty
appliance fixed another. The two repairs doubled the number of
functioning X-rays in the country.
Buried under paperwork in another office stood a foreign-donated
ultrasound machine which the resident radiologist said had sat, unused,
for half a decade.
The machine, it turned out, was fine. No one could turn it on because
the buttons were labeled in Mandarin. Last week, Papua New Guinean and
U.S. technicians knelt side-by-side, punching through a painstaking
array of button keys, and finally the machine clicked to life. Now there
are English labels.
The ability to look at babies in the womb has breathed new life, such as it were, into the clinic, too.
Thus, missions like Pacific Angel attempt to help local government and
international aid agencies respond more quickly to crises within a
country's borders and assume control of recovery more quickly in their
wake - enabling them to better use the equipment, training and
connections they already have.
A number of the same groups who worked and trained together in previous
Pacific Angel and humanitarian assistance missions are together again in
the highlands of Papua New Guinea, including the Guam-based 36th
Contingency Response Group - specialists in crisis logistics - along
with USAID, engineers and medical teams from all branches of the
American and Pacific partner militaries.
For many of the Papua New Guinea Defence Force members, all the disaster
training and activity resonate strongly with their experiences.
"We've been through the real things, many times before," said Papua New
Guinea Defence Force Maj. Wilson Andrews, lead host nation planner for
This summer marks the eighth year of Pacific Angel missions. The teams
will be training in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief through