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Mayport's 4th Fleet runs Navy's response in Haiti

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on February 1, 2010.

The first order of business, Lt. Cmdr. Stephen Spencer remembers, was just finding out how bad things were.

It was shortly after 5 p.m. Jan. 12, and a news station on display in the 4th Fleet command center at Mayport Naval Station had just reported an earthquake had hit Haiti.

"It was a normal day, and then that happened, " said Spencer, the battle watch commander at the time. "Soon there was a lot of information gathering going on."

Not far away, Rear Adm. Victor Guillory was eating dinner and watching the news.

"I certainly had no idea of the magnitude at that point, but over the next couple of hours it was obvious that it was going to be something that would require perhaps more than the government of Haiti was able to provide, " said Guillory, the commanding officer of the 4th Fleet. "It didn't take long for the phones to start ringing."

For Guillory, the rest of the command's leadership and the 150 people usually assigned to the Mayport command, those ringing phones were the beginning of the biggest challenge the 4th Fleet has faced in the 18 months since it was established.

It's a test by fire of the Navy's newest numbered fleet and of its commanding officer, who took over in June. And it's a test playing out in public. For many, seeing vessels like the USNS Comfort and USS Carl Vinson are a big part of the picture of ongoing relief efforts.

Getting those vessels in place, Spencer said, started almost immediately. "It was the first question we were asked: 'What do we have in the area?' ".

'NOT WAITING TO KNOW'

The USS Higgins, returning from deployment, was rerouted to the site, as was the Vinson, escorted by the USS Normandy, which embarked a helicopter squadron from Mayport Naval Station that is helping with relief efforts.

"In those first days, the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps basically pushed capability to Haiti not knowing what the needs would be, but not waiting to know what the needs would be, " Guillory said.

At the same time, the Navy began flowing forces into the 4th Fleet, almost doubling the number of personnel working there.

Being able to respond quickly is part of the entire point of the Navy setting up the command, which was accredited late last year as a maritime operations center, a system in which forces can be more easily monitored and controlled.

In 2008, the numbered fleet command, one of six in the Navy, was layered atop the U.S. Naval Force Southern Command, which had been set up in 2000. Adding the 4th Fleet designation gave the command greater stature - particularly when dealing with other military organizations, both at home and abroad - and increased the support it got from the Navy brass.

It was set up to "allow a much better and more concerted response to problem sets that range from hurricanes to medical diplomacy to counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism kinds of operations, " Adm. James Stavridis, then commander of the joint U.S. Southern Command, said at the time.

Looking back, it was a very perceptive decision to set up the fleet, said retired Vice Adm. John Morgan, enabling the Navy to forge stronger relationships with nations in the area.

"It recognized the Navy has a much deeper dimension than the hard power it projects, " he said. "One of the core missions in the establishing of the 4th Fleet was humanitarian mission. It's all about strengthening partnerships."

A PLAN IN PLACE

That was an approach Guillory took since he took over the command. Soon after arriving in Jacksonville, the admiral visited the USNS Comfort, which was finishing up a tour in the area, and pointed out that his new command was prepared to deal with something like a hurricane or earthquake.

"We now have a foundation that, should the time come and there's a natural disaster in the region, we have a process in place, " he said then.

That process worked well in the hours after the earthquake, Guillory said, when the Navy served as first responders focused on getting to the scene. "They were on station in hours, not days, " he said about the first assessors to view the devastation.

In the days afterward, he said, the Navy added "tailored capabilities, " from supply ships to hospital ships, focusing on the needs presented by the United Nations, the government of Haiti and commanders on the ground.

'IT'S KIND OF A DANCE'

Back in Mayport, officers were doing the behind-the-scenes work necessary for those forces in Haiti to work, including getting supplies to ships and relief packages on the ground.

Everything is flowing smoothly now, said Lt. Cmdr. James Malone, who handles logistics for the command, with goods going from the hangars at Jacksonville Naval Air Station to a staging area at Guantanamo Bay to the people on the ground in Haiti.

Malone had been in Chile, planning an exercise for later this year, when the earthquake hit. Two hours after getting back to Jacksonville, he said, he was working on getting necessities moved along the supply chain.

Some 150 tons a day, he said, have been flown out of Jacksonville.

Elsewhere in the 4th Fleet headquarters, Cmdr. James Ginder has been working on getting those in theater a different sort of supply: bandwidth. In the past week, he and his staff doubled the communications capacity in and out of the area, enabling everything from progress reports to public affairs photos to be transmitted.

"We're not used to having this number of ships in our area of responsibility, " he said. "It's kind of a dance."

Now Ginder is working on increasing communications locally. He's ordered two trailers and 90 computers, workspaces for the 100-plus personnel who have moved into the 4th Fleet headquarters for the duration of the Navy's response.

"You always have to stay ahead, " he said.

Higher up the chain, Guillory also is looking toward the future - in this case, at how the Navy will work with the countries in the region after the crisis in Haiti is dealt with.

The work being done now, he said, will help shape those future relationships.

"Trust can never be surged, " he said. "What you've seen over the last few days was that there was a surge of capability and people, but the trust had to be built over time. I think that trust is paying dividends now as we work together to help the people of Haiti. I think that trust will be stronger when this operation is done."



About

This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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