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Relief crews encounter scenes of devastation in Indonesia

Relief crews encounter scenes of devastation in Indonesia

Relief crews

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — Striking images of disaster color the experience of servicemembers working in the aftermath of last week’s earthquake and deadly tsunamis in South Asia.

Flying over Indonesia in a Navy helicopter, Petty Officer 1st Class Rob Bywater saw entire towns wiped out along the coast.

“When you flew over all you could see is a mosque. You literally saw hundreds of foundations and nothing else,” he said.

Navy helicopter crewman Petty Officer 2nd Class David Matthews described the despair as “biblical in proportion.”

On the ground in Banda Aceh, one of the hardest-hit areas, Marine Capt. Andrew Rice from the defense attaché office in Jakarta saw bodies piled along the river like floating rubble.

“It looks like a huge amount of debris and then you look closer and it’s just dozens and dozens of bodies,” he said. “When you’re out there and see it, you just can’t believe it.”

About a thousand servicemembers are on the ground in Thailand, Indonesia and Sri Lanka helping in the relief effort; thousands more are offshore in ships. Air Force C-130s are moving supplies into the area so Navy SH-60B Seahawks from the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Group can ferry them to remote villages.

A dozen Seahawks are moving about 25,000 pounds of relief supplies a day, bringing Indonesian medical teams into remote areas and evacuating dozens of wounded refugees, said Cmdr. Ted Williams, the executive officer of Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron (VAQ) 131, part of Carrier Air Wing 2 from the Everett, Wash.-based Lincoln.

Sailors throughout the ship volunteered to fly out to airstrips each morning to load and unload supplies onto the helicopters all day.

Aboard the helicopters, crewmen see the devastation.

“I still can’t believe what happened,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Gilbert Salinas, a rescue swimmer. “You just see where towns used to be. The foundations are still there but the rest is in ruins.”

At several villages, helicopters dropped boxes down to surging crowds struggling to reach the aid. In one location, a man crawled through mud, gripping remaining plant roots to brace against the rotor wash so he could be first to reach a box of biscuits.

“If you throw out a sandwich they’ll fight over it. These people are hungry,” Matthews said. “When they saw the helo, it gave them a sense of hope.”

Despite constant sorties, thousands of boxes of relief aid have piled up in places such as Bangkok, Thailand, and Jakarta as well as remote airstrips, where a lack of space for aircraft, ground crew and simple pallets and forklifts has slowed the distribution process. U.S. military aircraft mingle with civilian and military planes from around the world.

“All these places are maxed out,” said Air Force 1st Lt. KC Young, a C-130 pilot with the 36th Expeditionary Airlift Wing from Yokota Air Base, Japan.

Military aircraft have begun bringing in pallets, forklifts and trucks to expedite the distribution in Indonesia, where boxes of relief supplies are piling up alongside the runway.

“It feels like the logjam is breaking open and aid is getting in,” said Tim Gerhardson, assistant press attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta. “We’re in high gear now and everything is moving.”

Military officials anticipate the relief effort will last for months. Once aid distribution is flowing consistently, sailors from the ships and civil affairs soldiers will begin reconstruction efforts, officials said.

For servicemembers such as Matthews, the effort is worth long hours of constant flying.

“I don’t want to go back to the ship. I wish I could fly more hours a day, there’s so much to be done.”

U.S. may send more copters

The U.S. military might double its number of helicopters in tsunami-stricken areas, according to Adm. Thomas Fargo, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command.

There are currently 46 military helicopters in the area, according to staffers who spoke with Stripes after Fargo briefed Pentagon reporters on Tuesday.

Fargo was asked if the U.S. planned to move more helicopters in, given their obvious advantages.

“I would say probably double the number we have right now. … Just based on the flow that I’ve looked at, and if we find that we can’t address those concerns that we have, then we’ll reach farther.”

Fargo said that based on the U.S. military’s recent disaster response in the Philippines and its 1991 experiences with humanitarian operations in Bangladesh, officials knew that helicopters, more than any other transport, are the most useful machines for these kinds of situations.

“A key lesson from all of these events was the value of helicopter vertical lift,” Fargo said.