U.S. Marines Bringing Typhoon Aid to Philippine Shores

Twenty years after Manila kicked the U.S. military out, it’s among the first there to help

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Marine Corps photo / Lance Cpl. David N. Hersey

Marines board a KC-130J Hercules aircraft Sunday in Japan, bound for the typhoon-ravaged Philippines.

Nearly 100 U.S. Marines and sailors are already on the ground in the Philippines, amid the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan, the vanguard of a U.S. military force that is sure to balloon in coming days.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has ordered the U.S. Pacific Command into action following the weekend storm, which may have left 10,000 Filipinos dead. The initial batch of 90 Marines and sailors flew more than 1,500 miles south before arriving Sunday in the Philippines from the Marines’ air station at Futenma, Japan, on a pair of KC-130J cargo planes. Their initial efforts will involve search and rescue before transitioning to transportation and logistics.

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They arrived in the hard-hit city of Tacloban Monday afternoon. “Roads are impassable, trees are all down, posts are down, power is down,” Marine Brigadier General Paul Kennedy, the commanding general of the Okinawa-based 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, told reporters. “I am not sure what else is there. I am not sure how else to describe this destruction.” Another 180 Marines are en route, U.S. officials said, and the Pentagon is standing by for expected requests for additional aid from the Philippine government.

“Our hearts go out to the people of the Philippines,” Pentagon spokesman George Little said. “This is a tremendously damaging storm.”

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The Pentagon is working alongside the U.S. Agency for International Development in coordinating aid. “Within hours, the U.S. embassy in Manila provided substantial financial assistance for health, water and sanitation,” Secretary of State John Kerry said. “The U.S. government is organizing emergency shipments of critically needed material to provide shelter to the hundreds of thousands of Filipinos driven from their homes by this unprecedented typhoon.”

Over the Veterans Day weekend, Team Rubicon, a nonprofit group of U.S. veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq, announced it was deploying ex-troops to help in the rescue effort. “The primary objectives of Operation: Seabird are facilitating search and rescue efforts and providing medical triage for a full-scale field hospital in Tacloban,” the group said.

The Philippine government said the disaster affected more than 4.2 million people in the central part of the Philippine archipelago. The death toll from one of the most powerful storms ever to make landfall has already reached about 1,000, but is expected to climb as rescuers reach and communications are restored to the region.

The U.S. has only a “small footprint” in the Philippines, Little said. It’s a far cry from the 40,000 U.S. troops who used to call Subic Bay and Clark airfield home. The Filipino government ordered the U.S. Navy out of Subic Bay in 1991, nearly a century after the U.S. captured the islands from Spain (the eruption of Mount Pinatubo forced the closure of Clark earlier that same year). Last year, Manila said the U.S. military could return to Subic and Clark.

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Regardless of that history, the U.S. military was the most visible sign of international aid following Mother Nature’s carnage. When a destructive storm hits hapless innocents, the U.S. military generally is among the first to arrive with water, food, tents and medical aid. Since 1990, in fact, the U.S. government has helped Manila respond to more than 40 disasters, including droughts, floods and volcanoes.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Navy Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III, the Pacom commander, told the American Forces Press Service. “If something is going to happen in the Pacific that is going to create a churn in the security environment, the most likely thing will be a humanitarian disaster problem of some kind.” That’s quite a statement, given the wars in Korea and Vietnam, the non-stop provocations from North Korea, and the perpetual whispering campaign in some U.S. quarters to turn China into the next big U.S. foe.