ABOARD THE USS BONHOMME RICHARD -- When Lance Corporal Keith Delatorre boarded this warship in San Diego a month ago, he thought he was on his way to Iraq. Now, he's loading up his gear for a very different mission, bringing badly needed aid to Indonesians left isolated by the tsunami that battered coastlines along the Indian Ocean.
Delatorre, who celebrated his 22d birthday Wednesday, said he was happy for the new orders, which came down two days after the disaster struck as the USS Bonhomme Richard was making a port call at the Pacific island of Guam. "We just need to get the mission done," he said, sweating in the heat of the ship's hull. "A lot of guys would say they want to go right to Iraq. But I'm kind of glad. There's not much chance of dying here."
The Bonhomme Richard and another warship brimming with Marines, helicopters, and heavy equipment arrived off the shores of northwest Sumatra yesterday to begin its part of what is possibly the largest US military humanitarian aid operation.
"We were training for Iraq, so getting diverted to a humanitarian mission is like night and day," said Delatorre, of Pleasant Hill, Calif., as he made his final check of the equipment loaded onto three huge hovercrafts stuffed into the hull of this amphibious assault vessel.
The Bonhomme Richard, with 1,300 Marines aboard, and the smaller USS Duluth are joining the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier and its battle group in the relief effort for Aceh Province, in northwestern Sumatra, where as many as 100,000 people are believed to have been killed by the Dec. 26 catastrophe. Another ship, the USS Rushmore, was also on its way.
The Marines are planning to set up farther south than the Lincoln to reach villages there that may not yet have made contact with the outside world.
Their arrival strongly boosts the relief efforts. Along with dozens of helicopters, the ships carry large landing craft that float on cushions of air and can come ashore on virtually any kind of beach. Once ashore, the Marines could offer the manpower and equipment needed to build shelters, clear roads and airstrips, and distribute clean drinking water.
Working out the details of the operation has been delicate.
First assigned to spearhead relief efforts on Sri Lanka, the Bonhomme Richard was diverted to Sumatra after the government in Colombo scaled down its relief request. An intensive airlift by helicopters from this ship to bring supplies out of the overwhelmed airport in Medan on Wednesday raised concerns from local officials that the military was crowding out commercial flights. Details about how the Marines would go ashore, probably in the flattened fishing village of Meulaboh, were still being worked out as the ship arrived off the regional capital of Banda Aceh.
Even so, the mission was taking shape.
"Right now it's just coming together," said Captain Ray Delarosa, a spokesman for the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit.
Delarosa said that the Marines' training for combat and for humanitarian missions overlaps, and that although they were preparing to go to Iraq, they are able to easily tailor their capabilities to the new demands. He said that sanitation and preventing the spread of disease will be the top concerns when the Marines go ashore.
"In some ways, you could consider this mission more challenging than combat," Delarosa said. "We give it the same amount of attention and the same level of urgency."