USS GUNSTON HALL, At Sea (NNS) -- The Whidbey Island-class dock-landing ship USS Gunston Hall completed its role in providing humanitarian assistance to the Haitian people as part of Operation Unified Response, following a 7.0 magnitude earthquake that rocked the Caribbean island Jan. 12.
Gunston Hall arrived off of the Killick Haitian Coast Guard Base on January 18 and left last Saturday.
The crew, particularly the ship's hospital corpsmen, along with the embarked international Africa Partnership Station (APS) West staff, linked up with U.S. Coast Guard units and other U.S. Navy units already in the area and assisted with stabilizing conditions at the base and providing medical assistance to those in need. They were eventually joined by members of Joint Task Force (JTF) Bravo's medical element, deployed from Honduras, and members of the navies of Mexico and Colombia.
"There is no satisfaction greater than seeing someone that you helped feel at ease and at peace," said Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Mercedes Sawin, a Gunston Hall Sailor from Otis, Mass. "This has been a team effort since day one, and I'm very grateful to have been a part of it."
For the three weeks, Gunston Hall's deck department transported ship's crew ashore, manned the flight deck for 50 helo refuels, ran crane operations to load humanitarian and relief supplies onto the embarked landing craft, mechanized (LCMs) units, and ran well deck operations to make sure the LCMs were onloaded and offloaded safely.
"We were the mechanism that ensured our commanding officer's vision for this mission was accomplished," said Lt. Kathryn Wijnaldum, Gunston Hall's 1st Lieutenant.
A detachment of embarked Sailors from Beach Master Unit (BMU) 2 and Assault Craft Unit (ACU) 2 helped push Sailors and relief supplies ashore.
"Our mission at Killick was ship-to-shore transport," said Engineman 3rd Class Jarrell Ray, assigned to ACU 2, from Sumpter, S.C. "We provided a means of transporting aid that other ships out here weren't equipped for, and off-loaded aid material not only from Gunston Hall, but from Mexican and Colombian navy ships as well."
"From the Colombians and Mexicans, we moved a total of 355 tons of food, water and supplies," said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Chach Olivarez, from ACU 2. "From Gunston Hall, we moved 4,820 gallons of fuel, 218 tons of food, and 10 tons of water."
"It's been non-stop," said Information Systems Technician 1st Class (SW) Eric Lake, assigned to BMU 2.
The APS West staff, originally embarked for the ship's scheduled deployment to West Africa, took on much of the planning for the mission and set up a coordination center that oversaw all operations at Killick.
Ghanaian navy Lt. Cmdr. Samuel Ayelazono's job was keeping track of patient movements as they were medically evacuated to distant hospitals or to offshore medical facilities such as USNS Comfort (T-AH 20).
"This was very important because there were so many patients to be evacuated…the information collected was to help reunite relatives with patients when they are finally discharged," he said. "I am happy to have played a role in this relief assistance. It has indeed broadened my horizons as a naval officer."
The embarked Maritime Civil Affairs Team (MCAT) 203 provided countless hours of aid distribution to areas affected by the earthquake. They were able to deliver or arrange delivery of mattresses, tents, relief supplies and food, including more than 900 packages of high-nutrition meals. A total of 325,603 meals were provided.
"My heart still goes out to them," said Hospital Corpsman 1st Class (EXW/FMF) Robert Lemon, assigned to MCAT 203. "We did as much as we could and the team is very gratified in that."
Other Sailors were stretcher bearers, carrying 409 patients onto 127 helicopter flights out from the base landing zone to either the U.S. Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) or other locations. Others, such as Gunston Hall's Visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS) team provided security for the LZ during flight operations.
"This is probably one of the most rewarding experiences I've ever been a part of," said Operations Specialist 3rd Class Amanda Britten, from State College, Pa. "To be part of something this great was awesome, especially when you know that your efforts gave a glimmer of hope to someone who might not have had anything left."
Sailors from Gunston Hall's engineering department provided much needed relief to the service members and local volunteers living and working on the base.
"We were able to procure and fix a badly damaged well, essential to the quality of life for the base," said Hull Maintenance Technician 2nd Class (SW) Chris Dreiling, from Salina, Kan. "The well now functions and provides water to the toilets, sinks and showers."
Gunston Hall and crew are satisfied with their efforts made while at Killick.
"Our job here was a success," said Operations Specialist 3rd Class (SW) Noah Munger, from Ortonville, Mich. "We completed what we were tasked here to do."
Capt. Cindy Thebaud, the embarked APS West commander, said the Haitian Coast Guard commander presented all the Sailors aboard with a Haitian flag signed by the base's leadership as a token of their gratitude for the team's help.
"They appreciated what we did and gave their very heart-felt thanks," she said. "They recognized that while our main focus was medical assistance and aid distribution, with which they assisted us, we undertook whatever else we could to help the base get back on its feet, too."
"The Sailors of this mighty ship provided a much-needed light at the end of a dark tunnel for the Haitian community," said Cmdr. Fred Wilhelm, commanding officer of USS Gunston Hall (LSD 44). "Their efforts and commitment to the mission here in Haiti will last a lifetime in the hearts and minds of those they helped."
The ship and crew of USS Gunston Hall are now embarking on the original mission, a deployment to Africa in support of APS West.
APS West is an international initiative developed by Naval Forces Europe and Naval Forces Africa that aims to improve maritime safety and security in West and Central Africa.