The Road to Sendai: Parts 7 & 8 - FKOF JPN #9

The Road to Sendai: Parts 7 & 8


We’re following FKOF JPN contributor fameONE‘s attempt to get to Sendai, Myagi Prefecture to aid with the international relief effort. Today sees Brandon eventually make it to Sendai, after waiting almost two weeks for permission (and a plane) to get there.

The Road to Sendai 07: Mixed Signals 25/03/11

Once in Atsugi, I began to succumb to my overwhelming feelings of failure and lack of self worth. I came here to complete an assignment. The assignment happened to be very clear in my eyes; assist in the relief effort while telling the story. From what I had been informed was that my primary mission was going to change dramatically and I would just need to adapt to the circumstances. Only I’ve been adapting to the goddamn circumstances since this ill planned operation began. I had no leg to stand on and I was losing my will to fight back to any authority figure in an effort to return to Sendai.

After getting reconnected with the outside world thanks to a Blackberry charger acquisition, I managed to cover a story on Marines providing much needed communication to areas without power or satellite services. The story reads like I’ve spent an extensive amount of time researching their job and their capabilities, but feeling uninspired, I simply asked a friend, got a few quotes and sent it to the press officer. I didn’t even attach imagery. Which, in hindsight, is rather lazy and unlike me, but my morale was at an all-time low since returning to Japan last year.

Yesterday, I was determined to do something productive and for the greater good of this relief effort so I began making phone call after phone call. A Lieutenant tipped me off to a possible supply run to Sendai. I didn’t think twice and made my way to the freezing cold hangar on the opposite side of the flightline. Once there, I waited. An hour or two passed by and there was no word on when we were leaving. The pilots all moved with a sense of urgency that alluded to someone important paying a visit. I was right. The commanding general for III Marine Expeditionary Force was en route to survey the area and diagnose the progress that each unit was making.

Meanwhile, the flight to Sendai got canceled. As a matter of fact, all future supply runs were canceled indefinitely until the Government of Japan specifically asks for “X” amount of goods to be delivered to a given location. I still tried to do what I could because I wanted to fly. I needed to get away from Atsugi and do something; anything. There was a flight to Yokota AB on the opposite side of Tokyo and I wasn’t exactly sure what it was for but I went anyway. Once in the air, I learn that it was an escort of distinguished visitors from one place to another. It showed promise of being interesting depending on who they were or if I would have the opportunity to interact with them. That, like almost everything else in this operation, didn’t go as planned.

I never met them. I never even saw them. We were in another helicopter completely. We landed in Yokota and immediately left to drop them off at the U.S. Army Barracks on the other side of town. It’s not my call to make and certainly not my place to be so annoyed but it didn’t make much sense to waste equipment and assets just to be a glorified taxi. I got no story and I didn’t get any decent photos that would further tell the rest of the world about what we’re doing here in Japan. I felt overwhelmed again. I just wanted to get away from it all. I even contemplated buying some civilian clothes from the exchange, leaving base, and taking a train somewhere. It was far-fetched and unreasonable since I knew the Lt. was planning on putting to work in some menial capacity or another.

(sidenote: She’s really had my back and understands my frustrations quite well. Perhaps it’s because we are in the same age group, or maybe it’s because, despite the rank difference, we’ve had very similar responsibilities during operations like this.)

I was in luck… sort of. I got a call last night as my temporary roommates were going on a frat-house bender in the room. If you want to see a bottle of hard liquor disappear faster than a celebrity’s dignity, then call up a bunch of disgruntled Marines. Amidst the vulgarities and arguments about sports, the good Lt. called up and informed me of a civilian media escort for the morning (today). I happily obliged because it meant the possibility of returning to Sendai. This is what I’ve been waiting for; this is what I wanted. Even if I had to babysit a few reporters in the process, I was going to get my chance.

The reporters were friendly and well informed about the situation at hand. They knew so much about the military that I began to question our operational security during this whole event. I shrugged it off and we bantered well enough to get past the initial polite pleasantries until our driver dropped us off at the hangar. We waited. Business cards were exchanged, jokes were told, and we talked about cameras (typical). We continued to wait. Luckily, one of the reporters was a chainsmoker, which made talking to him a lot easier. This is something that is esoteric to smokers, so I won’t even attempt to explain why that is. Anyway, we head back inside the hangar only to be told what I learned yesterday; all supply runs were canceled indefinitely. I could have raged but I let it go. There was nothing I could do.

I covered another mundane story like the one I covered the day before yesterday and left it at that. This is getting old.

The Road to Sendai 08: Finally 28/03/11
I’ve been the Northeastern region of Japan for the past two days. It looked worse than I could have ever imagined. Picture above was a small fishing community on the coast. As you can see, the tsunami, which had waves up to 50 feet, went in a few miles in some parts. It’s certainly humbling to get a closer look.

When flying on a helicopter you began to appreciate the pressurized cabins of airplanes, especially when the helicopter has an open door and windows. This time of year, it’s still very, very cold in northern Japan. The temperature inside the aircraft got as low as -11 degrees Fahrenheit during the multiple trips I’ve made these past two days. As miserable as the trip was, I’d do it all over again. As a matter of fact, I want to do it again, which is why I’m going to show up to the hangar in the morning for another opportunity to go with the helicopter squadron and drop off food and water to the people of the disaster-affected areas.

The radiation nonsense with the Fukushima nuclear facility makes the trip from Atsugi to the Miyagi prefecture rather lengthy. We stopped at Sendai International Airport to retrieve the cargo from Marines who cleaned up the airstrip. From there, we fueled at Matsushima airstrip. Matsushima was in terrible shape. You could see the water line on all of the hangars. Doors had been torn down, windows without glass, debris everywhere; it was horrible. True to the honor and dignity of Japanese culture, the Japanese soldiers cleaned diligently without showing any sign of frustration or anguish. They gladly fueled our birds and we proceeded to Oshima island for a delivery. It would have continued but the weather was not permitting, so the crew high-tailed it to a Japan Self Defense Force heliport on the outskirts of Sendai.

By the way, Sendai is a really nice city. It’s actually quite amazing that it’s so appealing to me. Snow-capped mountains with a sizable downtown, all part of a very westernized, grid-like development. There’s no doubt in my mind that this place will be cleaned up by the end of the year. Take notes, New Orleans.

The soldiers accommodated us well. We slept in a somewhat heated room with carpeted floor. After flying all day, stripping down to long-jonhs and sliding into my sleeping bag was quite the pleasing experience. I even got a full night’s sleep. Maybe I should sleep on the floor in a military issue sleeping system more often. The next morning, the crew did their pre-flight checks on the helicopters and we were off. The pattern was simple enough to follow; pick up cargo from Sendai airport, fly to disaster area, refuel and repeat until there wasn’t any more cargo. I took as many photos as I could until my camera battery died. I’m back in Atsugi, captioning photos to send off to the distribution officer. I suddenly don’t have much of an urge to return to Okinawa anytime soon. I want to keep helping.

[Fred DuFour/ AFP/ Getty Images]

If you’re able to do your bit and donate for Japan find a place to donate here. The above posts conclude Brandon’s journey to Sendai (he’s now back in Okinawa) but we’ve got more lined up about his experience over the coming weeks.

Follow Brandon on Tumblr (where you can read all the Road to Sendai posts), TwitterFacebook and flickr.

Pray for Japan.

Peace, love and respect.