Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Officials Dedicate Humanitarian Relief Corridor in Pentagon

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates helped to dedicate a Pentagon corridor here yesterday that recognizes the efforts of America's men and women in uniform to bring hope to people in need of help around the world.

The "Humanitarian Relief Efforts at Home and Abroad" corridor has exhibits highlighting 27 major events, from the late 1940s to the present day, in which Defense Department personnel brought aid and comfort to those in need.

"The U.S. military is the greatest fighting force in the world – but there is another side to what they do," Gates said. "That side is represented in this exhibit. The suffering caused by war and natural disaster prompts a compassionate nation to respond."

The exhibit's displays include photographs from the operations, written words explaining what happened, and three-dimensional objects such as simulated mud, snow, debris, trees and containers with food and supplies.

"These vivid displays take us around the world, and back in time, to understand more about the relief operations of our military," Gates said. "Some of these missions of mercy have been carried out on foreign soil, others here in the United States. Some are legendary; many more deserve to be."

Gates mentioned the 462-day Berlin Airlift in 1948-49, in which U.S. and allied forces dropped food and supplies to a city blockaded by the Soviet Union. Many Berliners' lives may have been saved by the U.S. forces' actions, and 31 American servicemen gave their lives in the process.

Gates also spoke about the help U.S. forces provided Hungarians fleeing Soviet forces in 1956. He noted that the military has been increasingly involved in different types of humanitarian operations and has become more active in delivering humanitarian aid during disasters around the world.

"The scale and scope of these missions has widened over the decades," Gates said. "Our servicemen and women have responded to natural disasters on our own shores, from forest fires and blizzards to Hurricane Katrina, and have gone to every corner of the globe in the wake of tsunamis, earthquakes, mudslides and floods."

The secretary pointed out that military humanitarian operations are part of a broader effort that requires cooperation with other branches of government.

"In all of these missions, the military plays an important role – not necessarily in the lead, but in support of and partnership with the civilian agencies of our government," Gates said. "Today's broad range of activities requires close cooperation between civil and military institutions, whether we are talking about a hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, which has provided health care to thousands of people in Latin America and the Caribbean, or civil affairs teams in eastern Africa."

While the military's "fancy technology and lift capability" help to make humanitarian operations possible, Gates credited the men and women in uniform and "their desire to make something good and decent happen, even amid situations of chaos and destruction" for also helping to accomplish the missions.

As an example of this desire to help people, Gates pointed to Air Force Col. Gail S. Halvorsen, who earned worldwide acclaim as the "Candy Bomber" during the Berlin Airlift. While flying missions during the airlift, Halvorsen began dropping chocolate bars with tiny parachutes to Berlin's children. His actions earned him the love and gratitude of Berliners and the acclaim of people in the United States and throughout the free world.

Halvorsen was on hand to help to dedicate the corridor, and he also spoke during the ceremony. He reminisced about his experiences and how he was inspired by some German children he met at the Berlin fence in 1948 who told him, "Someday, we'll have enough to eat. But if we lose our freedom, we'll never have it back."

Feeling the need to do something extra to help Berlin's children, Halvorsen began dropping candy to them, and his deeds earned him his Candy Bomber nickname, along with others such as "Chocolate Pilot" and "Uncle Wiggly Wings."

Halvorsen spoke of a visit back to Europe in 1998, when he was approached by a man who remembered being a boy in Berlin and having one of the chocolates drop out of the clouds on a parachute. "It wasn't the chocolate that was important," the man told Halvorsen. "What was important was that someone in America knew that I was in trouble. Somebody cared. ... I can live on thin rations, but not without hope. Without hope, the soul dies."

Halvorsen said the efforts of those who took part in the Berlin airlift not only resulted in gaining the gratitude of the German people, but also helped to fulfill the U.S. forces who had an opportunity to be of service to others and put service before themselves.

"That's what this wall is; that's what this exhibit is," Halvorsen said. "It's service before self, and we see that today in our men and women serving right now."

In addition to Gates and Halvorsen, Michael L. Rhodes, acting director of administration and management in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, spoke during the ceremony.

"This is truly a special day," he said. "It's a day when we pay tribute to the men and women who have carried out the mission of the department during times of need. These men and women have displayed good will assisting civilians not only in our great nation but around the world."

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld also attended the ceremony. Rumsfeld had the initial idea for the corridor in November 2005.

By John Valceanu
American Forces Press Service

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