13th MEU(SOC) exceeded expectations in East Timor

20 Sep 2000 | Sgt. M.C. Miller - 13th MEU Combat Correspondent

It only took Marines and Sailors of 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) and Tarawa Amphibious Ready Group three days to help people here get a head start on a lifetime of independence.

In those three days, Sept. 14-16, 13th MEU(SOC) and Tarawa ARG delivered 570 tons of supplies, treated more than 890 medical and dental patients and performed numerous other missions in three East Timor cities.

The humanitarian assistance came during the midst of 13th MEU(SOC)'s six-month deployment to the Western Pacific and Arabian Gulf.  The humanitarian assistance is conducted on a rotational basis, and the 11th, 15th and 31st MEUs have previously visited the country to provide help and demonstrate U.S. resolve to continue providing help to East Timor.

The 13th MEU(SOC) and Tarawa ARG combined to provide a short-term, high-impact humanitarian assistance operation to East Timor, which is still struggling with the aftermath of its newly won independence.

East Timor is a country of coastal and mountainous beauty, but afflicted by violence which has wrecked its serene scenery.  It suffered heavy devastation throughout when, about one year ago, militias protested the vote for independence by attacking the citizens and burning buildings.

As Marines and Sailors walked through a hard-hit part of Dili, one remarked, "It looks like a MOUT (Military Operations in Urban Terrain) town."  Several areas of the country were almost totally destroyed, including Oecussi, a city separated from the rest of East Timor by a swath of West Timor land.

A United Nations peacekeeping force, along with U.N. aid workers and non-government organizations, has been in the country since the independence vote was taken and the violence started. They continue to help the East Timorese rebuild, and have provided food and help to protect the citizens from further militia attacks.

To aid the U.N. and NGO efforts, the 13th MEU(SOC)/Tarawa ARG team stopped in the hot, sticky country after training in Australia and offloaded more than 700 Marines and Sailors each day to conduct 26 separate missions. Along with the food, building supplies, roofing supplies and medical and dental patients, the team painted two schools and a landmark cathedral steeple, installed seven basketball backboards and trained East Timorese people in heavy machinery operations and security procedures.

The 13th MEU(SOC)/Tarawa ARG also delivered two shipments of supplies from Project Handclasp, a nonprofit organization based in the United States. The deliveries included a variety of smaller items that were lost during the struggles with militias, such as hospital equipment, hygiene supplies, school supplies, food, and library books.

The friendly, open manner of the East Timorese was a revelation to the servicemembers, who didn't know what to expect from the locals.

"It would have been easy to think that everyone here is probably tired of what's been going on, but they don't seem that way at all," said Petty Officer 3rd Class Asa Saunders, a 24-year-old chaplain's assistant aboard USS Tarawa, who volunteered to help paint a school.  "These people have a lot of spirit, and are very nice."

As some Marines and Sailors walked to their destinations, children would run up, calling out to the "Americanos."  One group of children serenaded some Marines with "USA!  USA!  USA!" when the Americans walked past.

"To be a part of this is great," said Saunders.

"This is one of the many very complete contributions the United States has made as part of the United States Support Group East Timor arrangement," said Sergio Vieria de Mello, special representative of the Secretary General of the UN.  "Thanks to all of you for the humanitarian assistance and support you have extended to the people of East Timor."

Each mission was accompanied by a security force, but the focus of effort was always helping the people.

"It's pretty bad out here, but to look around and see all these children waving at us and coming in to help us, that makes it pretty clear why we're here," said Cpl. William Cahrier, 22, of Marine Air Logistics Squadron 39.  Cahrier helped paint a school, transforming the facility from a sun-bleached mauve to burgundy and gold, trimmed in white.  "This is all for these kids, to give them a future."

"The U.S. military is comprised of men and women who respect the high ideals and morals of our country," said Col. Christopher J. Gunther, commanding officer of the 13th MEU(SOC). "Nowhere is that more evident than here in East Timor."

The 13th MEU(SOC) and Tarawa ARG visit culminated in a ship's visit by more than 300 East Timorese and UN and U.S. personnel temporarily stationed in East Timor.  A change-of-command ceremony was also held aboard USS Tarawa, as leadership of USGET changed from Marine Corps Col. Michael Williams to Army Col. Louis Traverzo. 

13th Marine Expeditionary Unit