Within hours after an earthquake and tsunami struck northeastern Japan in March 2011, U.S. Marines posted on the southwestern island of Okinawa were on their way to the devastated area to help rescue people and clear debris. Other U.S. forces soon followed.

Today, such disaster relief has become a regular task for the Marines and the other services, said Gen. James Amos, the Commandant of the Marine Corps and member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. During a visit to Hawaii last week, he nodded over his shoulder at the Pacific Ocean and said: “There is a mission out there.”

Until recently, the duty of U.S. armed forces was to use power and often violence to defend the national interest. Occasionally, they were diverted into disaster relief because they had the ships, planes, equipment, and the medical, engineering, and logistics people to do the job.

But military people sometimes resented being called away from their main duties. More than one has muttered as he or she unloaded emergency food supplies from a cargo plane: “This is not what I signed up for.”

That has changed, however, and what is formally called “humanitarian assistance/disaster relief,” or HA/DR, has become an integral task for the armed forces. Adm. Samuel Locklear, the new leader of the Pacific Command, told reporters in his Honolulu headquarters that HA/DR was among his top priorities.

“It will be difficult to make it through this tour without having a natural disaster,” he said, referring to his two- to three-year assignment as commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific.

General Amos noted that the Asia-Pacific region suffered an average of 70,000 deaths a year from natural disasters, far more than any other region in the world. (That might be expected since the region is far larger than the others and is home to about half of the world’s population.)

Even so, a United Nations report expanded on the general’s observation. “During the past decade, on average, more than 200 million people were affected and more than 70,000 people were killed by natural disasters annually [in the Asia-Pacific region] … Those figures represent 90% and 65% of the world totals, respectively,” the UN said.

”With increasing urbanization, migration patterns and population growth in general, people are occupying high-risk areas in greater numbers than ever, increasing their vulnerability,” the UN said. “Disasters do not respect borders or distinguish between income levels.”

Among the earliest military efforts in recent disaster relief was Operation Sea Angel in Bangladesh in 1991. A cyclone had hit the country killing 139,000 people, making five million homeless, and killing one million cattle essential to the agricultural economy.

A task force of 4,600 Marines and 3,000 sailors on five ships was sailing from the Persian Gulf east across the Indian Ocean when they were ordered to relieve the distress in Bangladesh. “We were able to come from the sea and put boots on the ground in short order,” said Lt. Gen. H.C. Stackpole, the commander and now retired Marine in Hawaii.

Operation Sea Angel was credited with saving an estimated 200,000 lives. Stackpole was quoted at the time: “Our mission was to save lives. I think we saved a lot. I wish we could have saved more.”

An even larger relief effort was dispatched to Southeast Asia after an earthquake and tsunami off the coast of Indonesia in 2004 caused 200,000 deaths in nations whose shores are washed by the Indian Ocean. Another 140,000 were believed missing and 500,000 made homeless.

The U.S. aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and a dozen other ships, plus reconnaissance planes, helicopters, medical and engineering teams were dispatched to help. The Indonesian embassy in Washington said later: “Indonesians will not forget the goodwill and generosity shown by both the people and government of the United States.”

From those and other relief efforts such as that in northeastern Japan, lessons have been learned and incorporated into contingency plans, training, and task forces organized for rapid response.

Marines training near Darwin in northern Australia, for instance, are drawing on those lessons. General Amos said: “Marines are prepared to work alongside their Australian brothers in training for and preparing for executing HA/DR missions. Our Marines operating out of Darwin will be ideally positioned should such a need arise in the future.”

On Okinawa, he said, the commander of the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, Brig. Gen. Craig Timberlake, has been assigned to identify people and units that might be needed on short notice for disaster relief. That officer, the Commandant said, “is the ultimate utility infielder.”

About the Author

  • Richard Halloran
    Richard Halloran, who writes the weekly column called “The Rising East,” contributes articles on Asia and US relations with Asia to publications in America and Asia. His career can be divided into thirds: One third studying and reporting on Asia, another third writing about national security, and the last third on investigative reporting or general assignment. He did three tours in Asia as a correspondent, for Business Week, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, and was a military correspondent for The New York Times for ten years. He is the author of Japan: Images and Realities and To Arm a Nation: Rebuilding America’s Endangered Defenses, and four other books. As a paratrooper, Halloran served in the US, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam. He has been awarded the George Polk Award for National Reporting, the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense, the U.S. Army’s Outstanding Civilian Service Medal, and Japan’s Order of the Sacred Treasure. He holds an AB from Dartmouth