News: Marines, sailors take leave to build homes, clean, give hope
Story by Lance Cpl. Kenneth Trotter
IWAKUNI, Japan - The passengers on the bus are silent as they ride through the city. Their faces have no expression. No words can describe the scene around them. Houses leveled by boats several hundred yards from the port; cars overturned; a thick, grimy sludge covering everything in the vicinity. An entire city laid to waste by nature’s wrath. This was the scene before Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 12 volunteers.
The city of Higashimatsushima was one of several towns and cities hit by the tsunami on March 11. One out of every 24 people who lived in the city was killed.
“No one said anything during the trip,” said Gunnery Sgt. Fabio L. Salas, MALS-12 squadron gunnery sergeant. “It was just so overwhelming. I can’t describe it.”
Almost three months have passed since the devastating earthquake and tsunami ravaged the northeastern coastline of Japan. Operation Tomodachi, a joint operation that provided disaster and humanitarian relief, came about in response to the fallout from the double devastation.
Operation Tomodachi has officially ended but the relief effort to restore many of the cities along the coast continues in the form of volunteer efforts.
Thirteen Marines from MALS-12 volunteered their personal leave to help in Higashimatsushima.
Salas said when the request for volunteers came through, he wasn’t surprised by the number of volunteers.
“I was more surprised by the ranks,” said Salas. “When I saw it was a quite a bit of money, I thought it would probably be sergeants and [staff non-commissioned officers] volunteering; people who can afford to do it and who have enough leave. So when I saw lance corporals and corporals, who don’t make as much money or have much leave, it definitely surprised me and showed me how much commitment we had to the job.”
Nine thousand dollars was raised for the Marines; $7,000 was used to provide transportation for the Marines in the form of a roundtrip bus to Higashimatsushima. The other $2,000 was used to cover tools and supplies. The volunteers also spent their own money and personal leave to help. The volunteer trip even cut into the Marines’ Memorial Day weekend.
“Everyone who volunteered took personal leave to go up there,” said Sgt. Andrew R. Feldon, a MALS-12 ground support equipment electrician. “Everyone understood what was being asked of them. Everyone understood it would eat into our [Memorial Day] weekend.”
The volunteers worked for five days but were there for nine total. The volunteers were surprised by the lack of perceived destruction in the area when they first arrived. Collapsed buildings, flipped cars and general disarray of the city didn’t become apparent until they moved closer to the coastline.
“I didn’t think it was as bad until we took a trip closer to the coastline,” said Feldon. “I saw the full extent of the devastation. It was overwhelming to believe how much could be washed away in an instant.”
The volunteers set about collecting debris and clearing away a thick, black sludge that covered many buildings, cars and fields.
The Marines had to rip up floor boards in order to clear away the sludge beneath residential houses.
“We were getting all the mud and sludge underneath the houses,” said Cpl. Jeffrey D. Burke, A MALS-12 ground support electrician. “Guys were crawling underneath houses to get it out. That’s why the floor boards were coming up. It was everywhere. It was in the garden and drains. The plants were starting to die because it was damaging the soil.”
Thirty houses were cleared and cleaned throughout the nine days the volunteers were there. Quitting time varied from house to house, depending on what all was involved in the cleanup.
“We worked on a job until it was finished, making sure we got as much cleaned up as possible,” said Burke. “There were a few days when we worked late.”
Some residents were surprised by the outpouring of help the Marines showed as they worked to clear away debris. The Marines were in turn humbled by the resident’s appreciation for their efforts.
“Looking at the overall damage, it feels like we just threw a pebble into the Mississippi River,” said Burke. “In one hand it feels like we didn’t do much, but in the other hand, if you look on the personal level of the people, it was astronomical how much we were able to help. There was an elderly couple who kept saying thank you over and over. They told our translator they didn’t know of a way to be able to thank us because we saved them two years of work in two hours. They were just so appreciative.”
Though their trip has ended, the Marines are looking forward to helping with the continuous relief efforts again.