Clear, blue but salty saltwater washes up surrounds the Pacific beaches of Saipan, the most populated island in the Northern Mariana Islands. But Marines from the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit and sailors aboard the dock landing ship USSAshland, of the Bonhomme Richard Amphibious Ready Group, have managed to turn this sea water into the island’s number one drinking resource for potable drinking water to aid the victims of Typhoon Soudelor, which struck the island Aug. 2 through Aug. 3.
Day to day, almost About 150 Marines and sailors with members from Amphibious Squadron 11 supply fresh water daily to four distribution siteslocations on the island, said Lt. Col. Eric Malinowski, commanding officer of Combat Logistics Battalion 31. Over 600 Marines and sailors total since Aug. 7 have delivered or distributed more than 114,000 gallons of water.
Sailing north from exercise Talisman Sabre, a two-week biennial exercise near Australia, the units were set to participate in a certification exercise on Guam, Tinian and Palau from Aug. 10-19. The irony of it all, Malinowski said, is the Marines' task for CERTEX was to provide mock humanitarian support — instead, they rerouted to a real relief mission headed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"The Marines love ... interacting with people, they feel the love, and it's really rewarding for them in their military job, because now they're providing water to families in need," Malinowski told Marine Corps Times Thursday in a phone interview from Saipan.
To get critical water flowing to those in need, the The Ashland’s crew first used the ship's own water supply was first used until Marines could power up their reverse osmosis machines — the Light Water Purification System and Tactical Water Purification System — making 20,000 gallons of drinkable water per day, he said. Water production specialists in the 31st MEU as well as medical preventative medicine corpsmen test the water for cleanliness and drinkability. The joint effort has produced more than over 68,000 purified gallons.
"On the ground, each water bladder has about eight Marines supporting it," Malinowski said. The Marine Corps is using its own bladders because they can hold up to 3,000 gallons.
FEMA has provided extra generators and bucket trucks, Malinowski said. "At first light, we turn on our machines, we fill up and head out," he said.
In addition to filtering water, Marines have also aided in the delivery of equipment, Meals, Ready-to-Eat, and more than over 10,000 pounds of Red Cross relief suppliesgoods.
"There's not a military member on this [mission], throughout the chain of command, who doesn't want to help someone and get them the help that they need, but we have to temper that excitement to provide support with what the Defense Department can do with immediate support only," Malinowski said.
Four MV-22B Ospreys with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 265, 31st MEU, are stationed in nearby Guam to provide aerial lift support; Flying 1,000 miles to reach their destination, the Ospreys have since flown two sortie missions between the islands, Malinowski said.
Another "big player" is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has who have installed generators to power emergency shelters, he said. The Air Force’s 36th Contingency Response Group, flying over from Andersen Air Base, Guam, has also helped unload FEMA-contracted cargo planes each day since.
Malinowski said that while FEMA is taking the lead in getting the water wells clean and running again;, how long Marines will stay remains to be determined. The 31st MEU and COMPHIBRON 11 will sail home to Okinawa, Japan, once their task is completed.
"It’s one thing to do this for a relief exercise, ... but when you’re standing in front of people waiting for water, that realism, that impact that someone’s life is depending on you, that is much more important than an exercise," Malinowski said.