For U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Carol Pottenger, Haiti was a wake-up call. In the aftermath of the Jan. 12 earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people and left millions homeless on the island nation, the U.S. military deployed tens of thousands of soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen to help with aid efforts. Pottenger, commander of the Navy's nearly four-year-old Naval Expeditionary Combat Command (NECC), which oversees coastal forces, realized that almost all her 10 divisions had sent people to Haiti.
"Every one of my capabilities has a piece of the action down there," Pottenger told World Politics Review. That includes fast-deploying logisticians, Navy construction workers and demolition divers, civil-affairs specialists, harbor and river patrollers and other niche naval forces. For the first time since NECC first stood up at a decrepit naval base in Little Creek, Va., Pottenger's forces were at the leading edge of Navy operations. They repaired ruined ports, handled food and medicine distribution and helped coordinate the activities of civilian aid groups.
This was an important development for a branch of the military that has struggled to define its role in an era seemingly dominated by the land-based insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. The rise of a charismatic, intellectual officer class, personified by Gen. David Petraeus, coincided with deep reforms in the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, but not in the Navy, which by contrast appeared adrift.