USS OAK HILL, At Sea (NNS) -- The dock-landing ship USS Oak Hill (LSD 51) officially completed operations for Southern Partnership Station (SPS) '09 and began its transit home July 31.
SPS '09 was a combined naval and amphibious exercise with Oak Hill and maritime forces from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru and Uruguay. Oak Hill also supported the U.S. Marine Corps Forces South (USMARSOUTH) multinational amphibious exercise known as Southern Exchange 2009.
Capt. Brad Williamson, commodore, Destroyer Squadron 2, says the goal of SPS '09 was to build relationships with partner nations in South America by learning from each other through a mutual exchange of ideas.
"When we say partnership, what we're talking about is getting to know each other, how each Navy operates and most importantly, exchanging ideas," said Williamson.
"We didn't come down here to train them; we came down here to train with them. Our officers surely learned as much working with them as their officers learned working with us, so it was an excellent period of 'give and take' exchange."
Oak Hill departed its homeport in Little Creek, Va., June 3 with more than 20 partner nation liaison personnel embarked. Those Sailors worked hand-in-hand with Oak Hill's crew - even integrating into the ship's watch rotation. Oak Hill's crew and embarked Sailors from Expeditionary Training Command, in Little Creek, Va., participated in subject matter expert exchanges with partner nation Sailors in Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. Training in areas such as basic first aid and medical; damage control and firefighting; wet well operations; in-port security; vessel, board, search and seizures was conducted.
Operationally, Oak Hill conducted joint maritime security operations with the Uruguayan Navy executing a swept channel mine avoidance exercise and conducting deck landing qualifications (DLQ) with Uruguayan helicopter pilots, successfully performing 12 landings and take offs from the flight deck. The ship conducted DLQs with Brazil as well, executing 18 take offs and landings with Brazilian pilots flying a Brazilian Super Puma helicopter.
Williamson said successfully conducting these joint operations is in line with the Navy's mission of maintaining maritime security through cooperation with partner nations.
"One of the most important things to realize is that we face similar challenges," said Williamson. "Maintaining maritime security isn't just an issue for one nation. Things like piracy, narcotics trafficking and other trafficking face all nations; it's going to require a coordinated, cooperative approach to solve these problems."
SPS '09 isn't just about sea power projection; Oak Hill also made a positive impact on the communities in South America through Project Handclasp and community relations projects. The ship delivered more than 50 pallets of medical, hygiene supplies, books, toys and other educational supplies to local communities in Castries, St. Lucia and Montevideo, Uruguay.
More than 150 crew members and partner nation personnel volunteered for community relations projects in St. Lucia and Montevideo. The crew also welcomed aboard more than 100 orphans and troubled teens in those communities for ship tours, lunches with the crew and award presentations. Cmdr Daniel Blackburn, Oak Hill's commanding officer, said his crew is always thrilled to be able to make a positive impact on a community.
"Our crew delivered Project Handclasp materials to two different countries," said Blackburn. "They painted a nursing home in Uruguay and visited a school in St. Lucia. They conducted themselves in a manner that is consistent with being a model United States Sailor."
The crew also hosted nearly 500 distinguished visitors onboard for several highly visible events including receptions in Argentina and Uruguay and a Fourth of July cookout on the flight deck for families from the U.S. Embassy in Uruguay.
Throughout SPS '09, Oak Hill's Sailors not only got to know their partner nation counterparts on a professional level but on a personal level as well.
"You know, one of my officers, 10 years from now, when he is the captain of a ship and he has to execute a mission and its with the Peruvian Navy or the Argentinean Navy, and the captain of that ship is somebody he met on this particular deployment, they will understand each other and have a personal relationship. They'll be able to work together better," said Blackburn. "I think that's huge."
Williamson said he is pleased with the progress each navy made during SPS '09 and feels that there is even more partnership building in store for the future.
"This is not the end," said Williamson. "This is a long-term relationship. We understand the importance of our South American partners in solving the challenges that lay ahead. We're committed to strengthening relationships with these countries and working with them to develop cooperative solutions. We feel like we're just laying the ground work for the future."
Oak Hill will depart Rio de Janeiro July 31 transiting back to its homeport in Little Creek.
For more news from USS Oak Hill (LSD 51), visit www.navy.mil/local/lsd51/.