OVER SRI LANKA -- Senior Airman Matt Morrow scans the Sri Lankan horizon during tsunami relief operations here. His HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter delivered supplies and equipment to various relief distribution centers. Airman Morrow is an aerial gunner from the 33rd Rescue Squadron at Kadena Air Base, Japan, supporting Operation Unified Assistance. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Val Gempis)
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- Senior Airman Russell Asbel inspects the rotor blade on his HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter after an Operation Unified Assistance mission here. Airman Asbel, a crew chief, and others from the 33rd Rescue Squadron at Kadena Air Base, Japan, are helping move relief supplies to tsunami victims. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Val Gempis)
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- Staff Sgt. Rob Ivory inspects flight gear of HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter crews supporting Operation Unified Assistance. Sergeant Ivory, a life support technician, and others from the 33rd Rescue Squadron at Kadena Air Base, Japan, are helping move relief supplies to tsunami victims. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Val Gempis)
by Master Sgt. Orville F. Desjarlais Jr.
Air Force Print News
1/20/2005 - COLUMBO, Sri Lanka -- Maj. Mark Ledbetter briefs his aircrew about the day’s mission and walks with them to their HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter. It is a simple mission, but the enormity of the situation still affects the entire aircrew.
Their task it to help feed and supply more than a million people left homeless after killer tsunamis wiped-out the eastern coast of this island, located south of India. Those affected are in temporary shelters provided by local government officials, but the camps are difficult to get to because of washed out bridges and roads. It has been more than three weeks since the disaster struck, and debris still covers many roads, making them impassable.
In many cases, helicopters are the only means by which to bring doctors, medicine, food and supplies to the camps that house the homeless.
It is a familiar mission for Airmen of the 33rd Rescue Squadron from Kadena Air Base, Japan. They recently returned from the Philippines where they helped that country after it was ravaged by a typhoon. By comparison, the Dec. 26 tsunamis that struck here overshadow the typhoon in loss of life and destruction. Officials estimate the waves killed a quarter of a million people in this region. Volunteers cleaning rubble continue to find bodies here.
With the preflight check done, helicopter blades slice the humid Sri Lankan air. As Major Ledbetter lifts off a grassy field, sand and dust shoots everywhere, making it difficult for helicopter maintainers to see.
However, it is not just dust that obscures the maintainers’ sight. Left behind, they are also unable to witness the squadron’s humanitarian mission. They hand their cameras to aircrew members in hopes of getting images they can take home. Once the helicopters return, they listen attentively to all the stories.
“It’s kind of gratifying,” said Staff Sgt. Kevin Ward, a crew chief. “But it would be nice to actually see the action. Even though we don’t get to go, I still get satisfaction out of it.”
In the air, Major Ledbetter and his crew fly 500 feet over palm and coconut trees, over the dense tropical forest that blankets the island shaped like a teardrop, over wild elephants and 200-foot statues of Buddha.
The crew lands at Dampula, a small village located near the middle of the island. It is a Sunday and with no work or school, villagers crowd around to see the Americans land.
Meanwhile, the maintainers are chasing the shade. Every so often, they move their chairs to get out of the sun, not only to avoid the heat, but also to prevent sunburn. A side affect of taking pills to prevent them from getting Malaria or Dengue Fever is their skins’ sensitivity to the sun.
However, maintainers are not the only ones left behind. Staff Sgt. Rob Ivory, a life support technician, also does not get to see the relief operation first hand. But, he said he does not mind.
“I don’t get to see the good stuff, but there are many people who didn’t get to deploy [to Sri Lanka] either,” Sergeant Ivory said. “At least I’m here. I wanted to come here to make a difference, and being a part of search and rescue is the best job in the world.”
Back at Dampula, villagers lean into the wind generated by the helicopter. They haul boxes of tomatoes and big bags of pumpkins, string beans, cabbages and onions to the aircrew. In one day, two helicopters hauled about 10,500 pounds of vegetables. To date, they have helped deliver 30 tons of vegetables and 250,000 pounds of relief supplies.
“They need this food to survive,” said Cyril Wickramaratne, the director of a local export company. “It will get distributed to the refugee camps in the east. The farmers sold the vegetables at cost for this cause.”
Back at Colombo, about 120-miles away from the action, Maj. (Dr.) Mona Sinno, the squadron’s flight doctor, is on standby. She is ready to help when needed. Although she has yet to witness the humanitarian effort, the 31st RQS flight doc said she is glad to be a part of the operation.
“I support the people who help in the relief effort,” she said. “This is a great mission. Being a physician, I’m glad to be given the chance to help.”
In Dampula, Major Ledbetter lifts off after his helicopter is filled with vegetables. He takes his cargo to Ampara, located close to the eastern coast.
So ends their portion of the rescue effort. Relief workers and Sri Lankan servicemembers bring the vegetables to the homeless people staying in the camps. Like the maintainers, the flight doctor and the life support technician, even the flight crews do not get to see the full extent of their humanitarian efforts.
Nevertheless, none seem to mind. They all say they are just grateful for a chance to help a region that so desperately needs their support.