Three weeks after having landed on the island of St. Martin, Special Operations Command South (SOCSOUTH) service members transitioned their relief operations to Joint Task Force-Leeward Islands (JTF-LI) in Caribbean areas devastated by hurricanes Irma and Maria.
Since September 11th, SOCSOUTH members and assigned forces – as part of a larger task force – have assisted locating and evacuating American citizens, coordinated for the distribution of life-saving goods, sustained satellite communications systems, and directed vital nighttime airfield operations, while maintaining much needed on-the-ground situational awareness.
This situational awareness made it possible for SOCSOUTH members and assigned forces from the 15th Special Operations Squadron (SOS), Hurlburt Field, Fla., to identify and evacuate 19 American medical students off the island of Dominica.
“We were extremely scared,” said Yaadveer Chahal, a Ross University School of Medicine student evacuated by the 15th SOS. “We were all crying and weren’t even sure if anyone knew where we were,” she said, adding that the students were without basic amenities for days as they waited evacuation. Except U.S. Special Operations Forces on the ground did know their location and were able to plan their evacuation.
SOCSOUTH’s liaison element – comprised of air force, army, and Navy Special Operations Forces – coordinated for helicopters from the USS Wasp to fly the students to an airfield where a deployed Air Force Special Operations Command MC-130H Combat Talon II would land to evacuate them.
USSOF's flexible and unique capabilities allowed for the coordination and evacuation of the American citizens at night, with limited ground control assistance, and from an airport with no power that was devastated by Hurricane Maria, said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Sean P. Cunniff, SOCSOUTH’s future operations chief, who helped coordinate the air assets for the command.
“It was an uncontrolled airfield with an uncertain situation on the ground, surrounded by poor weather, and at the very end of a tactical crew duty day,” said Lt. Col. Cunniff of the Air Force Special Operations Command crew’s effort. “That’s a lot when you consider flying in to a place with no lights and no control tower – all at the end of a short-notice self-deployment – SOF [Special Operations Forces] is the only element able to do that.”
“If it wasn’t for the prior military and current service members who showed up and worked around the clock, we would have been lost,” said the university student, a native of Berkeley, Calif., who was also under medical observation for sudden health issues.
While this is just one example of the joint force’s effort in direct support to the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, the evacuation also highlighted the distinct abilities of U.S. Special Operations Command forces.
“As a mutually supportive interoperable partner, SOF brings unique capabilities to our partners in need, and the joint task force,” said U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Collin P. Green, SOCSOUTH commander. “We have the right people with the necessary skills and equipment always ready to deploy.”
“Great work by the team leaning forward,” said Navy Adm. Kurt W. Tidd, U.S. Southern Command commander, during a mission update briefing last week. SOCSOUTH has been doing great work, especially after two hurricanes devastated the region, he added.
“At the end of the day we are just one more member of the team looking for ways to help,” said Rear Adm. Green. More than 70 SOCSOUTH members and assigned forces were spread throughout the Caribbean providing communications support, situational awareness, logistical flexibility, and transportation capability in direct support to JTF-LI and USSOUTHCOM.
Additionally, AFSOC forces set up a forward air refueling point to refuel helicopters and other aircraft performing recovery missions in the area of responsibility. AFSOC forces supporting SOCSOUTH include the 1st Special Operations Wing and the 492nd Special Operations Wing. “SOCSOUTH remains ready, and flexible to be responsive when asked to support the mission,” said Rear Adm. Green.
SOCSOUTH is responsible for all USSOF activities in the Caribbean, and Central and South America and serves as a component for USSOCOM and USSOUTHCOM. Since 2007, the northern portion of the island of St. Martin has become a French overseas collectivity known as Saint Martin. In 2010, the southern Dutch portion of the island became the independent nation of Saint Maarten within the Kingdom of the Netherlands.