U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) activated Joint Task Force-Leeward Islands (JTF-LI) to support humanitarian assistance and foreign disaster relief (HA/FDR) efforts in the Caribbean. Hurricane Irma was the first Category 5 hurricane to strike the Leeward Islands, comprising more than 10 islands located between the northeastern Caribbean Sea and the western Atlantic Ocean, in decades.
U.S. Marine Corps Colonel Michael Samarov, commander of JTF-LI, granted Diálogo an exclusive interview to discuss the joint task force’s support to the disaster-relief operation led by the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (USAID/OFDA), at the request of the French, Dutch, and Dominican governments.
JTF-LI comprises about 300 U.S. military personnel and includes the support of eight helicopters, four C-130 Hercules aircraft, and the USNS Spearhead (T-EPF 1). Its personnel stem from the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Southern Command, Joint Task Force-Bravo, and other SOUTHCOM elements. The task force is just one element of the U.S. response to Hurricane Irma and will remain in the affected area to support ongoing USAID/OFDA-led relief operations as long as USAID deems necessary.
Diálogo: What is the mission of JTF-LI?
Coronel Samarov: Our mission is to do two things. The first thing is that we are to safeguard and provide military-assisted departure to American citizens caught up in the devastation caused by hurricanes Irma and Maria. The second part of our mission is, in conjunction with our partners at USAID/OFDA is to conduct humanitarian assistance and disaster relief on the island of St. Martin and on the island of Dominica.
Diálogo: What are the capabilities of JTF-LI?
Col. Samarov: We’re a small organization. We’re quite capable. We’re capable of conducting very rapid planning, which, in the face of a disaster, is very, very important. We’ve got pretty substantial capabilities to transport things by air, by helicopter – we have eight different helicopters – and supporting us are a large number of C-130 transport airplanes. We’ve got a pretty robust logistical capability that, among other things, can make water, move heavy materials, and conduct operations and planning at an airport. In other words, figure out how things come in and how things come out.
On the ground, we’ve had tremendous help from Special Operations Forces and from our marines, who can help us understand the environment that we’re in on the ground, understand the needs of the people. They can find isolated Americans, and they can process those Americans for evacuation. That’s just a sample of what we can do.
Diálogo: What has been your biggest challenge as the commander of JTF-LI?
Col. Samarov: I think one of the greatest challenges has been just helping the people on the ground cope with the devastation caused by these two hurricanes. On St. Martin we were dealing with French and Dutch nations. These are two proud and very capable nations. The island took such a hard hit that it was right for the United States to come and help. Working with them to provide just exactly the right kind of help, to understand what their needs were, and not do too little but certainly not do too much, was very, very important.
The challenge was a little different on Dominica, as the island took such a devastating hit. Really, the tough part, was working with our USAID/OFDA friends to understand what the government needed – even as it itself had taken such a devastating blow – and then providing that with roads destroyed, bridges covered over, and just a lot of isolated communities with a lot of isolated people. I’d say that was probably the hardest thing – just kind of working in the circumstances of such devastation.
Diálogo: How do you manage HA/FDR efforts based on partner nation requests for aid with USAID/OFDA and other U.S. government agencies and international relief organizations?
Col. Samarov: Our USAID/OFDA partners have been great. They’re really the professionals who work day in and day out in the environments, perhaps not quite as devastated as we’ve seen on St. Martin and Dominica, but in the same circumstances. They know how to get in touch with local governments and local relief agencies. They understand the international community and what they bring. They’ve got contacts with all of the national aid organizations. They’ve made things from that perspective relatively straightforward for us, and I’m just grateful we had such a great partner with USAID/OFDA.
The way in which we are able to provide assistance in an HA/FDR operation is, again, through USAID/OFDA. When they work with an affected nation’s government and determine what the requirements are, they will first go to their own resources or they’ll see if they can’t find one of the international, national, or non-governmental aid agencies near a job. It’s only when one of those agencies can’t do the job and there’s a unique requirement for helping them that they come to us. There’s a process that the government follows to make sure that we use the right tool for the job.
Diálogo: How does JTF-LI work together with partner nations?
Col. Samarov: We work together in different ways. On St. Martin, this was something that we’ve experienced before. France and the Netherlands are our NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] allies. We have experienced with one another, we know one another. To make it easier, there were a number of French marines and Royal Netherlands marines that as a marine, I’m very familiar with, working with those forces. This was an easy conduit for us. We were able to place liaison officers at both headquarters, and they were a conduit into the French government.
On Dominica, it helped us because we were working out of the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe, which are French territories. We’ve received great support from the French military since we’ve been there. Dominica, as I mentioned, took a direct, devastating hit. We have used our civil military operations experts –soldiers and marines – on the ground that, together with our USAID/OFDA partners, connected with the partner nation government, worked with them to gain an understanding of what they needed, found out where we could help, and made it happen.
Diálogo: What are the advantages of operating as a joint task force in an HA/FDR environment?
Col. Samarov: The advantages are that we were very, very complementary. I’m a marine, and I command a marine organization. As marines, we pride ourselves on being fast and light. We can get somewhere fast; we don’t need a lot of support. We can set up and start working. There is, however, depth of expertise and understanding that the other services bring. The Special Operations Forces are, of course, a tremendous added benefit across the board, so our Air Force partners provided us tremendous capability to lift things to the air using their transportation aircraft. Army forces came in with additional capability, with everything from that civil military operation through providing us trucks to haul relief supplies. The Navy provided support through the USNS Spearhead, which is a high-speed vessel that can carry tremendous amounts of supplies and equipment.
It’s really all about teamwork, where every team member has certain strengths, certain limitations, but they’re not the same, so we complement one another, which makes us a stronger force when we’re together.
Diálogo: What is your message for the affected partner nations?
Col. Samarov: I think the message is that the United States is a compassionate partner. The people of the United States – the American people – want to help our partners anywhere in the world. Now, much of that help flows through USAID/OFDA, but in crisis situations, the Armed Forces of the United States can provide unique, lifesaving aid, and that’s what we did here.
Diálogo: On a personal level, what has this experience meant to you after almost three weeks of operations?
Col. Samarov: We’ve been at this for a while. My first day on St. Martin might have been the 12th of September. Before then, we were planning and moving. For me, this experience really comes down to the human touch. The bottom line is we’re all together, we’re all people, and people in desperate circumstances need help. Mostly, I’m proud. This was a difficult situation, and I’m proud of all the soldiers, the airmen, the sailors, the marines, and the civilians that have been part of this. I’m proud of everybody who, on very short notice, came a very long way, put together a team, and helped make a difference.