U.S. Southern Command’s humanitarian assistance program conducts Defense Department-approved activities within its area of responsibility in conjunction with partner nations to alleviate human suffering, disease, hunger and privation, particularly in regions where those needs may pose major challenges to the civilian populace.
By leveraging the combined capabilities of U.S. government agencies, partner-nation military and civilian counterparts, and international organizations, the program enables local governments to strengthen regional security and stability.
Civil affairs officers play a vital role in SOUTHCOM’s humanitarian assistance program. “We are like the connective tissue between the DoD and interagency partners that are responding to a major catastrophic event,” said U.S. Army Colonel J. Frank Melgarejo Jr., civil affairs planning detachment chief. “We use our specialized skill sets in order to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of the response.”
While disaster response is a critical part of the humanitarian assistance mission, the hope is it will become less necessary. “The rapid response effort is about a quarter of what we do,” said U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Steve Lewis, a SOUTHCOM civil affairs officer. “The other 75 percent is helping our partner nations prepare.”
Preparation efforts have included building emergency operations centers and disaster relief warehouses, along with training emergency responders in partner nations. These projects are done in close coordination with the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of Foreign Disaster Aid and the Defense Security Cooperation Agency.
Between fiscal years 2012 and 2017, they have managed more than 3,000 humanitarian assistance projects within their area of responsibility, which encompasses 31 countries and 16 dependencies and areas of special sovereignty.
“One can never underestimate the capability and capacity of the partner nation,” Col. Melgarejo said. “They might not have all of the equipment that we have, but they have the will and the desire to make things better and increase stability and security within their space.”