When the U.S. Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort departed the Port of Miami on October 23, on its last stateside port of call before setting sails toward Latin America and the Caribbean as part of Continuing Promise, it brought hope to thousands of people who, otherwise, would not have access to medical and dental care, among other benefits. On board, there are some 50 Marines supporting this U.S. Southern Command-sponsored humanitarian mission from the infantry, civil affairs, and communication strategy and operations occupational specialties. Diálogo spoke with Lieutenant General David G. Bellon, commander, U.S. Marine Corps Forces, South and U.S. Marine Forces Reserve, about this different mission for the U.S. Marine Corps during his visit to Cartagena, Colombia.
Diálogo: How were Marines, known more to partner with Navy aboard amphibious ships, integrated into the Comfort’s mission?
Lieutenant General David G. Bellon, commander, U.S. Marine Corps Forces, South and U.S. Marine Forces Reserve: Marines have a long legacy working with and alongside our Navy brothers and sisters and are supporting this year’s Comfort mission in a variety of ways. First, going back to our roots as naval infantry, Marines are supporting the medical mission with a detachment of security forces to provide protection to the ship and all embarked forces. Despite the Comfort not being a traditional amphibious ship that projects Marines ashore, force protection remains a critical component to mission accomplishment and allows the joint force to execute the mission effectively. Additionally, Marines are supporting the Navy mission with a civil affairs detachment that is supporting the ship, the embassies, and the host nations with civil-military operations and engagements. These Marines are trained to liaise with international, host-nation, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and the civilian populace. They can also assess host-nation capabilities and needs, advise cultural factors, and enable civil-military operations planning. Finally, there are Marines tied into the joint public affairs team on the Comfort to help document the mission and tell the story of the incredible work being done by the Navy/Marine Corps Team, the Department of State, NGOs, and our partner nations.
Diálogo: How does their contribution add to what the crew and ship have to offer mission countries, like Colombia?
Lt. Gen. Bellon: First and foremost, every naval vessel operates a dedicated security team to protect the ship and personnel aboard. Force protection is a key aspect of military operations and facilitates the use of medical and lifesaving aide that is the focus of this mission. The Marines supporting this effort, deploying from their families and friends, do it without hesitation to ensure we are supporting our partners and neighbors in the Western Hemisphere. Their contributions are part of a whole of government team, not one of us can do it alone, but together we are extremely effective in making this mission a success.
Diálogo: How does this mission compare to past Marines humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions in the region, such as JTF-Haiti in 2021, JTC-Matthew, SPMAGTF [Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Southern Command], etc.?
Lt. Gen. Bellon: This mission is similar to past Marine humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions in the region in terms of capability provided, however, with the Continuing Promise 2022 mission we had the luxury of time to plan and coordinate with our partner countries and Embassy staffs. As an expeditionary force in readiness, the Marines are used to deploying on short notice in support of crisis or contingency response missions. We are always ready and we are honored to support our friends and partners wherever we can. When the Marine Corps responded in support of JTF-Haiti in 2021 we also provided security force units aboard the USS Arlington as well as COMMSTRAT [Communication Strategy and Operations] personnel both on land and afloat. Additionally, for that mission, we provided MV-22B Osprey aircraft to help deliver essential aide to the people of Haiti. The Continuing Promise mission is unique in the fact that we have the time and space to plan out the mission stops very deliberately, but with the same goal of helping and providing support to our partners and friends.
Diálogo: What are the determining factors for this mission success in terms of Marines participation?
Lt. Gen. Bellon: Putting Marines on ship to support the mission and experience the partnerships we have throughout the region and the good we provide as a nation is itself criteria for mission success. Ultimately, this is not just a Marine Corps mission, so for us, we achieve mission success when the whole team succeeds in providing the support, medical care, training exchanges, and relationship building to our partner nations. The Marine Corps remains committed to enabling that support by providing security for the ship, facilitating civil-military engagement and support, and telling the story of the incredible work being done by the doctors, techs, sailors, NGOs, embassies, and host nation staff teams.