News>Displaced reality: A wakeup call to why we're here
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan -- A pair of combat boots hang over the edge of an HH-60G Pave Hawk as it soars above the mountains of Japan March 13. The height and lingering capability of helicopters give military leadership broader perspective to help make critical decisions. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Samuel Morse)
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan -- Air Force and Marine airlift and rescue leadership look out over the debris left at Sendai Airport, Japan, following a massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami March 11. The small dots covering the runway are vehicles left there after the tsunami water receded. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Samuel Morse)
by Staff Sgt. Samuel Morse
374th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
3/15/2011 - YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan -- Long shifts, little sleep and an operations tempo akin to attempting to sprint a marathon can make us lose sight of the bigger picture: Japan is in its largest and most expensive crisis since WWII, and needs us more than ever before. Recently, I saw that need first-hand, and it put new perspective on my role here, now.
I remember disasters in the past, watching them on TV like some sort of demented television series, always disconnected from the devastation. Even the events of 9/11 never sunk in all that deep despite growing up in Connecticut. As I sit here at my desk, writing this, head swimming with sleep deprivation and trying to get my head around what might come next in these busy times, I have to reflect on the surrealistic nature of the past few days.
I just moved here a little over two weeks ago, but I've been living in Japan for more than three years now. Before this assignment, I was at Misawa Air Base in northern Japan. I did my best to travel around Japan when I could, visiting Aomori, Oirase Gorge, Towada and even spending an entire day exploring downtown Sendai and the massive electronics store there. When it came time to move to Yokota, I opted to drive the roughly 700 kilometers rather than fly or take the train.
Then, the earthquake hit. Having lived in Japan for a while, I'm used to earthquakes. Usually they are barely noticeable, feeling similar to that slight loss of equilibrium caused by mild dehydration or sleep deprivation. This started out that way, but slowly grew in intensity. I remember the moment that I realized this was no ordinary earthquake, and fear set in. I scrambled to the nearest doorframe, and waited what seemed like a very long time before the shaking finally abated. I remember it being roughly on par with standing on one of Tokyo's metro rail cars while in motion.
As odd as it is to have solid ground move beneath your feet, things did not return to normal. Our public affairs office spun-up with a fervor. We began covering the aftermath immediately, starting with the civilian airliners diverted here from Narita International Airport. Still, the reality of the situation never really sunk-in for me. Yokota was left intact and we still had all the creature comforts from before the quake.
It wasn't until two days later that the gravity of Japan's suffering hit me. I was called upon to go with a survey mission on an HH-60G Pave Hawk, assigned to search for useable air strips where we could land planes for supplies closer to the affected area. This meant flying up the coast through Sendai. I was very excited at the prospect of flying since my job normally does not allow me to do so, and helicopters are my favorite. I was curious to see what had happened in the north, but did not really understand the impact it might have on me.
I had driven this route only two weeks prior when I moved to Yokota, and saw it countless times traveling to and from Tokyo, as the bullet train (called the Shinkansen) was my preferred means of travel. The landscape of mountains, farmland and cities was familiar to me and I was recognizing the terrain we passed over. But, as we traveled further and further north, the landscape became more foreign to me. It started with rice paddies that were flooded more than usual, rivers devouring their banks and a few overturned or stranded boats. Gradually, I watched the peaceful Japanese countryside become a desolate wasteland. There were fields of shattered timber, rooftops with no house to stand on, cars strewn about as if a toddler was playing with matchbox cars, and even a train torn from the tracks and mangled like a discarded tin can.
I was able to see the land I had driven through superimposed through the carnage and was left dumb, unable to even explain my reaction to myself. I have grown to love Japan and it left a pit in my stomach to see such destruction sweep its coast. I captured the photographs I needed to, reminding myself of the importance of my mission, providing decision-makers with quality imagery of airfields as well as informing the American public of current events. It was small consolation though, as I found myself feeling incredibly small against the awe-inspiring destruction below my feet. It was hard to believe a few curved pieces of glass and a digital sensor could make any sort of measurable difference.
And yet, here I am. My small piece of the puzzle has helped rescue forces get the momentum they need to get to a forward airfield. I've been pulling some of the longest work hours in my career, ranging from 14- to 18-hour shifts, putting a face on the relief effort. The times that I've encountered Japanese workers here at Yokota, they've thanked me for my contributions without asking what they were. I'm not always sure if what I do always makes a difference, but it would seem that being here and giving it my all means a good deal to the honor-bound culture of Japan.
I ask my fellow Airmen to take a step back during their day to reflect on what they do. Commanders regularly drill into us the importance of everyone for mission success, but it's not very often that the success is in our own backyard. We owe it to our host nation and to the honor of the United States, to work at the pinnacle of integrity, service and above all excellence. This is one of the few opportunities we have at home station to make a verifiable difference in the world, so don't give up because of long shift hours, and don't give in to complacency or a "good enough" attitude because you're tired and haven't slept. Let's show the world the benevolent and awe-inspiring side of Air Power.
3/17/2011 4:10:01 PM ET We appreciate all you are doing in Japan. Your article was very interesting to us. We are glad your Mom sent it to us. We will forward it to Aaron and his family. Sincerely Larry and Sammye Beck
Sammye Beck, Joplin MO
3/17/2011 11:04:38 AM ET Staff Sgt Morse - Excellent piece. I spent 6 years in Misawa and a year in Okinawa. Japan is a beautiful Country and the Japanese people are wonderful. My heart and prayers go out to them and I think you and all our military for all they are doing to help.
Martin Greene, San Diego CA USA
3/16/2011 8:58:35 PM ET Very moving article. Having been stationed at Yokota 1999-2002 I remember well the gentle Japanese people. Thoughts and prayers go out to the people of Japan from our family. God speed to all who make sense of the chaos.
Joann Frye, Scott AFB
3/16/2011 3:50:49 PM ET WOW That brought tears to my eyes toward the end there. Great writing Sam
3/16/2011 2:23:01 PM ET Great read Having been stationed at Yokota from 2002-2005 I've been following a lot of the news on the site. You guys are doing an AMAZING job and representing the U.S. extremely well. Keep it up
Ronnie Sherard, Camp Blanding FL
3/16/2011 10:57:59 AM ET Staff Sgt. Morse I thank you for the insight about the state of things. My son Trevor Larsson and wife are stationed on Yakota and it has been agony as a Mom to be here and not know everything. I wish so much I could come there and volunteer myself and I know Trevor is putting in long hours and hope he reads your article and is inspired by it. God Bless You in the days ahead. Janisse Larsson