USS Iwo Jima returns from Haiti mission

The USS Iwo Jima docked at Naval Station Norfolk in October of 2016. Kara Dixon/WAVY Photo.

NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) – The amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima returned to Norfolk Monday after supporting Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief (HA/DR) missions in Haiti.

Hurricane Matthew hit Haiti as a powerful Category 4 storm, devastating the country. According to the government, hundreds of people died and many more remain missing.

The ship left from Norfolk on October 8. The Navy says it distributed 600,000 pounds of supplies including beans, rice, tarps, and medical kits to victims.

“Getting in there for the first time was a really eye opening experience to see what we were working with,” said Lieutenant John Hemler.

Hemler flew helicopters to bring aid to Haitians in the worst hit areas.

“I was really excited to do something out of the box compared to what we normally do in the Navy,” he said.

Rear Admiral Roy Kitchener says about 85 percent of the homes he flew over had roofs blown off, but he said he did not think the damage was as significant as the 2010 earthquake.

“The Haitian people, as that relief came across, they were very grateful, very thankful. They won’t forget those Sailors and Marines,” he said.

The Navy contributed its success to the cooperation of many military branches.

“Army Aviators, Marine Aviators, Navy Aviators, all working together with an Air Force team, off-loading and loading supplies on the ground. Doesn’t get any better in readiness,” Kitchener said about the joint task force.

Hemler said the mission showed the Navy’s great capability to not only be strong in warfare, but also humanitarian efforts.

“Our deployments are not focused on that, but to be able to respond quickly, it just shows the capability the Navy and Marine Corps team have to be to assist in that type of environment.”

Hemler says he doesn’t know if he will need to return to the country, but the Navy has a contingency plan if their help is needed for future disasters. He says he’ll always have the memories of his time in Haiti to look back on.

“The aid workers there were just exhausted and working so hard. We had a couple that kept coming up to the helicopter and mouthing thank you a bunch of times. It really stuck with me that the aid workers were assisting and the locals as well,” he said.

Following the USS Iwo Jima’s departure from Haiti, longer term relief efforts were passed on to civilian groups.