By Construction Electrician 2nd Class Paul LeRay
Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 5
OECUSSI, Timor Leste - Odds are that if you haven’t deployed to the Pacific region recently you might not have even heard about the newest sovereign nation in the world called East Timor or Timor Leste.
Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 5’s Civic Construction Action Detail Timor Leste, based out of the capitol of Dili, is the largest foreign military presence in the country. Their mission while deployed there is to provide humanitarian and engineering support to Timor Leste while building community and national relations.
Reeling from an Indonesian occupation lasting until 1999, Timor Leste still suffers from major infrastructure and sanitation problems leading to malnutrition, illnesses and one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world.
Timor Leste is a country divided into two parts: the larger eastern portion and a smaller enclave to the west called Oecussi - surrounded by the neighboring country of Indonesia. The Seabees have been in Timor Leste since 2009, but the recent push to Oecussi is the first time the Seabees have shown a presence in the western enclave of Timor Leste.
This July the Seabees sent a convoy to Oecussi as the most remote location NMCB 5 has touched this deployment. Upon arrival they were met with stares from the locals. The detail was informed by local drivers that many locals had never personally seen a foreigner, or “Malai,” before.
“It’s a great thing we’re doing, but the logistics are a nightmare. The cross through Indonesia, getting all of the equipment and materials out here, coordination with the [Timorese army] and of course there’s the issue of physical safety. Medical evacuation [medevac support] here is extremely limited, so staying safe on and off the job site is paramount,” said Utilitiesman 2nd Class Ethan Merrill, project supervisor.
The Bees immediately set to work on the assigned tasking alongside engineers from the Falintil-Forças de Defesa de Timor Leste. The tasking consisted of installation of rainwater collection systems, repair of solar electricity systems, replacement of windows and doors, repair of leaking roofs and repainting structures.
At the Usitaco Medical Clinic, a new kitchen was built outside to keep cooking fire smoke out of the clinic, and at the Oecussi Referral Hospital, triple power redundancy was enabled through repair of four generators and installation of a solar array. These new additions will ensure power supply to the emergency room during the daily power blackout from 7 a.m.- to 7 p.m. For the first time in three years, the hospital’s two ambulances were repaired to full working order.
A total of nine buildings were renovated or repaired in 19 workdays, to include two buildings beyond the original scope of work and seven days ahead of schedule despite being the most challenging mission the Seabees in Timor Leste have undertaken this deployment.
“It’s absolutely amazing to see the great amount of work that a small number of Seabees made in such a short time,” said Judith Fergin, U.S. ambassador to Timor Leste, at the ribbon cutting ceremony in Oecussi July 24. “You may not realize, but the impact you have made here is beyond words.”
Along with Fergin, guests at the ribbon cutting ceremony included Dr. Sergio Lobo, the Timor Leste minister of health, Jorge Teme, district representative of the Secretary of State of local development, Paul Randolph, U.S. Agency for International Development mission director, and more than 200 people from the community.
“You simply cannot have good healthcare without clean running water. It was impossible before, but you have made it possible,” said Dr. Reginald Gipson, chief of USAID Health Improvement Project (HADIAK), when he spoke about the work performed by the Seabees.
Ensign Heidi Lawrenz, the officer in charge of NMCB 5’s Timor Leste detail, the mission was a great success, and Oecussi is an example of how much impact Seabees can make in Timor Leste.
“We were able to showcase what Seabees do best, making high impact improvements and assisting communities in the most remote and austere locations,” said Lawrenz. “The mission not only improved the health and living conditions of local communities in extremely remote environments but also highlighted the relationships we have built with the Ministry of Health and HADIAK.”
The Oecussi mission was the final tasking for NMCB 5 Detail Timor Leste prior to returning home to Port Hueneme, Calif. At the completion of their eight month deployment, they will turn over the small detail site and missions to NMCB 3.
NMCB 5 is currently supporting Navy and joint forces throughout the U.S. Pacific Command with construction projects and humanitarian missions in more than 17 different geographical locations.