U.S. Army General Laura J. Richardson, commander of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), visited the crew of U.S. Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort, together with Colombian Defense Minister Iván Velásquez, and General Helder Giraldo, commander of the Colombian Military Forces, on October 14, 2022, in Cartagena. On her tour, she was also accompanied by U.S. Navy Rear Admiral James A. Aiken, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command/U.S. 4th Fleet (USNAVSO/4th Fleet), who has operational control of the ongoing SOUTHCOM-sponsored Continuing Promise mission. Diálogo spoke with Rear Adm. Aiken about his role and other important aspects of Continuing Promise 22.
Diálogo: The USNS Comfort is deploying for two months in support of the 12th iteration of Continuing Promise. How do you achieve mission success?
Rear Admiral James A. Aiken, commander, U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command/U.S. 4th Fleet: Mission success is achieved in a variety of ways, not just with Continuing Promise, but the many engagements we do alongside our partners. Did the mission include effective and efficient integration with our partner nations, interagency and joint partners, and non-federal entities? Were we able to strengthen our collective team and maritime partnerships? Were we able to enhance our maritime posture and communications? If we can say yes to these questions, then I think we have achieved a measure of success; however, there are always going to be areas of improvement. This is where we take our lessons learned and look to improve and innovate the way we work together.
Continuing Promise is one of the many ways that USNAVSO/4th Fleet is strengthening partnerships in Latin America and the Caribbean. Our engagements include multinational exercises like UNITAS, which we just carried out in Brazil last month [October]; PANAMAX, where we hosted 240 U.S. and partner nation personnel comprising the Combined Maritime Component Command (CFMCC) in Mayport, Florida, during the exercise; to a multitude of other bilateral and multilateral engagements. Alongside U.S. Marine Corps Forces, South, we are employing the full range of U.S. naval military capabilities to work with our partners to counter a host of cross-cutting challenges.
Diálogo: What do you view as the biggest challenge for this deployment?
Rear Adm. Aiken: This region faces many challenges: natural disasters; maligned actors; transcontinental migration; illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing; and authoritarian regimes both inside and outside the region who worsen corruption, which directly impacts the livelihoods of everyday citizens. However, regional challenges require cooperative solutions. Working collaboratively, we can effectively tackle these threats and challenges. The Continuing Promise mission demonstrates what people with differing backgrounds can achieve by working together, united by a common purpose to assist people in need. Their work strengthens friendships, partnerships, and solidarity with the most vulnerable citizens in the Americas. During the last 15 years of Continuing Promise, we have learned that health security is vital to national and regional security. USNS Comfort’s deployment in support of the Continuing Promise mission is one more example of our steadfast commitment to work shoulder-to-shoulder toward a safe, secure, and prosperous future for our citizens.
Diálogo: This mission is under your operational control. What does that mean exactly?
Rear Adm. Aiken: As USNAVSO/4th Fleet, we support SOUTHCOM’s joint and combined military operations by employing maritime forces in cooperative maritime security operations in order to maintain access, enhance interoperability, and build enduring partnerships in order to enhance regional security and promote peace, stability, and prosperity in the Caribbean, Central and South American regions. As a maritime force, USNS Comfort is under our direct command and control. Besides day-to-day operational control of USNS Comfort, USNAVSO/4th Fleet leads the planning and collaboration with our partner nations, interagency and joint partners and non-federal entities to get the mission to where it is today.
Diálogo: How does this deployment of the USNS Comfort differ from previous ones?
Rear Adm. Aiken: That’s a great question! Continuing Promise 2022 marks the 12th mission to the region since 2007 and the seventh mission involving USNS Comfort. The mission fosters goodwill, strengthens existing partnerships with partner nations, and encourages the establishment of new partnerships among countries, nongovernmental organizations, and international organizations. Direct patient care, direct veterinary care, and health security cooperation engagements have always served as large parts of the mission, along with Community Relations (COMREL) projects and of course our Continuing Promise Band, as music brings people together to celebrate our partnerships. Continuing Promise 2022 is also focused on two other lines of effort. The first includes subject matter expert exchanges on various medical and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief topics. The second includes seminars on Women, Peace, and Security (WPS). WPS is a United Nations initiative that started with UNSCR 1325 signed in 2000. It was a public acknowledgement that women are more adversely impacted by conflict and crisis, and that including women in security planning will lead to a more peaceful world.
Diálogo: How do U.S. military personnel work alongside civilians, federal agencies, and partner nations to provide medical assistance to communities in need?
Rear Adm. Aiken: Continuing Promise is a symbol of what we can accomplish when we work together, united by a shared commitment to help people in need and collectively address the challenges we face. This mission is comprised of a multinational, public-private, and multi-service team and really demonstrates the power of partnerships. USNS Comfort is crewed by almost 1,000 military and civilians, and includes doctors, nurses, corpsmen, logisticians, technicians, mariners, subject matter experts in various disciplines, and representatives of government and nongovernmental organizations. This team has worked closely with local ministries of health, local doctors, and local nurses to identify communities in need. You see the diversity of the team in the photos and videos that are produced at each mission stop. This close collaboration began months ago during the planning phase of this mission and continues today.
Missions like Continuing Promise are only possible thanks to the selfless service of a diverse community of talented people whose impact will far outlast the weeks they spend together. To understand that impact, since 2007, Continuing Promise missions have treated more than 582,000 patients and conducted more than 7,000 surgeries in South America, Central America, and the Caribbean.