WASHINGTON — The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson will soon leave Haiti, the Pentagon said Monday, marking a turning point in the US military’s initial response to the earthquake last month.
Also this week, the military head of Haiti relief efforts will decide if the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), which has been aiding in relief efforts, can continue on for its planned deployment to South Asia and the Middle East.
The US military, which already has its hands full in Iraq and Afghanistan, had responded substantively to the need in Haiti. But many in the Pentagon have been quietly asking about when operations could be handed over to the United Nations and other international relief groups.
Many of the problems confronting Haiti existed before the earthquake, and some US government officials are not keen to commit to a long-term nation rebuilding effort for fear of creating a new “dependency” on the US military at a time when it is already stretched thin.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Monday downplayed the USS Vinson’s departure from Haiti, saying it did not signal the beginning of the end of US military aid in Haiti. “We anticipate being in Haiti for as long as we’re needed, and for as long as the president wants us to be there and the Haitians want us to be there,” he said. But he added that the Pentagon was looking at “what balance of assets makes the most sense.”
The Vinson, which arrived in Haiti in the early days after the earthquake near Port-au-Prince, is the largest US naval contribution to relief efforts. It will leave behind more than 15 other naval ships, including the hospital ship USNS Comfort.
In the early days of the relief effort, the Vinson provided much-needed emergency medical care. It also brought with it a number of helicopters that are critical to relief efforts, doing as many as 240 landings of helicopters and other planes.
Over two weeks, the Vinson provided more than 87,000 gallons of water and airlifted to earthquake victims, more than 162 tons of food airlifted to earthquake victims, and more than 36,000 lbs. of medical supplies airlifted to earthquake victims. The ship will likely continue on to the California coast, where it was meant to sail to before it got the order for Haiti.
The 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), Camp Lejeune, N.C., may also get the nod to leave, military officials say.
The MEU had joined another Marine Expeditionary Unit from Camp Lejeune, the 22nd, about 10 days ago, and has been conducting operations outside Port-au-Prince, sending elements of the 2,200-Marine unit ashore to conduct assessments and relief operations.
The MEU is “likely to be released” from Haiti relief operations once Lt. Gen. P.K. Keen, commander of Joint Task Force Haiti, decides where they have a remaining role, , said Brig. Gen. David Berger, head of operations for the Marine Corps at the Pentagon. If the MEU does leave for South Asia, they will there within a few weeks of leaving Haiti, Berger said.