The day after Hurricane Matthew ravaged Haiti, the Marine Corps' Central America task force began arriving at Port-au-Prince to fly badly needed supplies to devastated areas.
"What I believe people saw from around the world is that this hurricane hit Haiti and the United States military was very, very rapidly there," said Col. Thomas Prentice, head of Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force – Southern Command.
This week, the task force will begin arriving back in the U.S. after its most recent rotation. Prentice reflected on the highlights of the six months that the nearly 300 Marines and sailors spent in Central America and the Caribbean.
After Hurricane Matthew slammed into Haiti on Oct. 4, the task force was put in charge of coordinating all Defense Department ships, aircraft and troops taking part in relief efforts, Prentice said Wednesday.
"The storm had just passed through the day prior when Marines and the special purpose MAGTF arrived and we started providing humanitarian assistance immediately," he said in an interview. "There was no pause."
One reason the task force was able to get to Haiti so quickly is that it began planning for the mission in September, while Matthew was still a tropical storm, Prentice said.
"We strongly suspected it was going to turn into a hurricane and was going to travel toward Haiti," he said. "When we saw that, we immediately pressed forward into our planning processes to plan on how can we get there as rapidly as possible."
The task force’s intelligence unit estimated that the earliest it could arrive at Haiti’s capital of Port-Au-Prince was Oct. 5, Prentice said.
"We presented our plan to the commander of U.S. Southern Command and we were given the approval to execute," he said. "I think it was at 09:00 on the morning of the 4th of October; we actually launched our first wave of helicopters."
Initially, the task force had two Marine CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters and seven Army helicopters, but when the amphibious transport dock Mesa Verde and the amphibious assault ship Iwo Jima arrived within days, a total of 20 helicopters were ferrying supplies to where they were needed, he said.
"A lot of those roads were washed out and destroyed," Prentice said. "We were able to take these Army, Navy and Marine helicopters and get these humanitarian supplies where they needed as quickly as possible."
Training foreign militaries
With its headquarters at Soto Cano air base in Honduras, the task force is also responsible for providing basic infantry training to military forces in Honduras, Belize, El Salvador and Guatemala, Prentice said.
"All of our Marines that are involved in this teaching have all gone to the [Marine Corps Security Cooperation Group] course of instruction at Fort Story, Virginia," he said. "They’ve been certified as instructors by the Marine Corps."
In Honduras, security forces have been accused of human rights abuses, including using excessive force to break up a demonstration. But Prentice said the U.S. embassy vets military units that the Marines train.
"In Honduras specifically, we only work and train with Honduran marines," Prentice said. "These units have been vetted for human rights abuses and the other pieces of the Leahy [Law] vetting process. We only partner with forces that have been approved by the ambassador and the embassy team."
Whether in Central America or Haiti, one the top priorities for the task force’s leadership was making sure Marines and sailors were taking precautions against diseases such as dengue fever, chikungunya, Zika and cholera, Prentice said.
The first line of defense is making sure that all of the Marines and sailors have protection against being bit by mosquitoes, such as extra sets of camouflaged uniforms treated with permethrin, he said.
"We have more bug spray than you can imagine," Prentice said. "We have some really, really good equipment. We’ve got small, individual tents that have mosquito nettings on them. Everyone is provided as much preventative that we can give to them."
Prentice credits the task force’s medical personnel for going "above and beyond" to make sure everyone knew how to avoid getting sick when working in remote areas.
"Quite frankly, our Marines have been very safe throughout the entire deployment," he said. "I’m very proud of our very, very low rate of sickness throughout the deployment. I think that’s a credit to the discipline of the Marines and the effective counseling by our corpsmen and our doctor."