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Japan disaster through first responder's eyes

KADENA AIR BASE, Japan -- It was both a rewarding and humbling experience to assist, even in a small way, with the tsunami recovery efforts on Honshu. For Americans that experienced the impact of Hurricane Katrina, we felt we could sympathize with the Japanese and we wanted to help in any way possible. I think I can speak for all rescuers (from the 31st and 33rd Rescue Squadrons and from the 320th Special Tactics Squadron), when I say that after one week of operations we all wished we could have done more.

While we witnessed some devastating sights, not everything we saw was disheartening. As horrific as the pictures on the news are, they can't capture the true gravity of what has happened to the Honshu coastline. It's horrible. However, what the news hasn't captured is what made the greatest impression on me. The Japanese people are doing a very good job in the wake of the disaster. They are a model of resilience and organization. While they continue to work through challenges and welcome help with the greatest of them, they have a lot to be proud of.

I flew over the areas hardest hit by the tsunami on Sunday afternoon and evening, March 13. We cued in on Japanese support requests with the intention of doing everything and anything necessary to help. However, using Hurricane Katrina as our frame of reference failed us. While there are undoubtedly similarities between the two catastrophic events, this "rescue" mission was quite different.

When we arrived at the scene of "isolated personnel in need of rescue" (our bread and butter), we found that the targets were actually "displaced personnel in need of relief." The Japanese had effectively grouped themselves into shelters (often 100 to 300 people in size) and were patiently awaiting support in the way of food, water and other essentials. There was no looting or pushing to the front of the line, only selflessness. No one asked for a ride further away, towards greater warmth or safety. All of that calm, despite the significant losses they had already sustained.

Over the next few days, hindered by bad weather, we recovered only one injured individual (an elderly man with a broken femur). We dropped off what water and supplies we had and entertained more requests for cigarettes and fuel than we did anything else. As I write this, there continue to be HH-60 flights supporting whatever aid can be moved into critical areas. We never considered ourselves above any mission. In fact, we used every launch opportunity to conduct further searches.

Given the nature of the relief effort, it's important to note how the American missions varied compared to the Japanese. The Japanese moved thousands of people out of harm's way towards rear collection points. Their Self-Defense Force was busy clearing roads and searching through debris in what seemed like an impossible task. Even on the first nights of the rescue and recovery efforts, we could see thousands of flashing lights from first responder rescue vehicles. The various Japanese prefectures seem to be reaching out throughout the disaster area. The effort was, and continues to be impressive.

American efforts have been notable, specifically with the opening of airfields and the ship-to-shore movement of supplies. However, the greatest efforts have been the Japanese recovery efforts. We shouldn't lose sight of that while we maintain pride in our own efforts to help.