Saturday, March 19, 2011

Back from Ofunato Pt. 2

I hope everyone reading this is feeling as amazing as I am right now!  Last night after I went to sleep I passed out for 14 hours and woke up today feeling better than I have all week.  Tomorrow I am back to work, but for now I get a chance to write a little bit about what I was doing in Ofunato.

When we were first tasked with taking a 10K AT down to Ofunato I was pretty sure that I was going to get to go since I was one of only a few people licensed to operate the trailer needed to transport it.  TSgt Myers, another 2T1 from my squadron, also had it on his license so we were paired up to transport it down to the USAID base camp at an elementary school in Ofunato.  As usual in Misawa, it had been warm during the day and temps had dropped below freezing at night and it started snowing a little.  We loaded the 10K on the lowboy trailer in the ice and snow and it was a little sketchy!  Below is a pic of our rig the morning before we headed out.  The International tractor we had hooked up is an American tractor, and although it is very nice it is not designed for Japan's tiny roads and sharp turns!

Getting through Misawa city in that tractor was one of the most difficult drives I ever had.  There was so much traffic and people were lined up on the one street trying to get into a gas station that had fuel.  This has become a common sight around Japan.  When a service station gets resupplied people line up and buy fuel until it goes dry.  Most of the gas stations you see are closed up since there isn't any fuel to sell.  Once we got off of the toll road, the Japanese equivalent of an Interstate Highway, and started going through some towns we could see that most grocery stores, convenience stores, gas stations, and almost everything else was closed.  Below are some pictures TSgt Myers shot out of the window of people lining up to get fuel.  Since it is cans and not cars, I am thinking it was kerosene because that is what most Japanese houses use for heat.

When we were leaving Ofunato their were cars lined up all the way down the road to a fuel station.  From what I've heard some people have been waiting in lines for hours. 

As with any mission, no plan survives first contact and in our case that contact consisted of the Japanese National Police detouring us around a tunnel because of an accident.  The road they detoured us on to was definitely not made for the large tractor trailers we were driving and one of our guys blew out two tires on a curb.

We broke down in front of this house and the people came out to talk to us and thank us for coming.  The man that lived there even helped provide some tools to get the tires off.

That is TSgt Myers in the black cap and SSgt Garcia facing the camera.

We only had one spare for that trailer but our maintainers were able to repair the one tire by replacing the valve stem and setting the bead with some lighter fluid from a Zippo.  

We ended up making it to the USAID base camp with just a few hours of daylight left.  We downloaded our 10K and loaded up the flat bed trailers that had come down with us and sent them back to Misawa with the gear and passengers from the UK search team.  Capt. Fiol, TSgt Myers, A1C Coniglio and I stayed behind to help the USAID teams build there pallets and get home.  The USAID teams consisted of two specialized urban search and rescue, one from Los Angeles and one from Fairfax Virginia.  These were the teams we had supported earlier in the week to come down to Ofunato.

The four military personnel worked with the teams to get their pallets loaded and we worked all night and all the next day except for just a few hours to get some rest.

All of the men and women on the search teams were extremely friendly and professional.  They are the two teams in the US that are employed by USAID, United States Agency for International Development, to deploy to crisis zones and assist with search and rescue after national disasters.  They had just recently helped with the earthquake in both Haiti and New Zealand.  As I mentioned before, their main mission is search and rescue of survivors.  If their are no survivors it is a recovery mission.  With it being a week after the disaster, and with temperatures being as low as the have been this mission had changed to recovery.  The USAID teams will only stay on to assist with recovery if the host nation asks them to, but in this case they were not needed so they were being sent home.

The teams don't just consist of humans either.  Below are some of the search dogs that are trained to sniff out survivors for the humans to retrieve.  Everyone was sleeping in the gym of the school and the dogs slept on the cots with their handlers.  It must have been pretty warm for them because the heat turned off at about 0200 when the generator ran out of fuel (they need to run the generator dry because they can't fly with it if there is fuel in it).  I was unprepared the heater to turn off though and I spent the night freezing my ass off!  We all had a lot of laughs about it the next morning because some of the other guys had so much extra stuff they were sweating.  I was ill equipped because all of my gear is still en route from Texas, and hopefully isn't in one of those sea-lan containers I saw all messed up on the news.

They were some of the most well trained and friendliest dogs I have ever met.   Below are the dogs and their handlers from each team.

This is the virginia team and their dogs.

This is the LA team and their dogs.  I got a chance to hang out with Cadillac, the black lab in this photo. I had a black lab when I was younger and he was an awesome dog, not sure if he was smart enough to save people in a disaster though!

After helping the teams build up their pallets we were invited to take part in their group photos along with some of the local firemen that were there also.  Captain Fiol and I are on the right, and Technical Sergeant Myers and Airman First Class Coniglio are on the left.

This is the VA team.

This is the LA team.

Here is Tom Lions from the State Department talking with the VA team lead Joe Kaleda.  Tom and his team road down to Ofunato with our convoy and their car was right behind our trailer with the 10K on it.  We were a little worried about the height of the load since it was sitting just at 4 meters and the bridges aren't marked well in Japan.  Tom was a good sport about me asking him to catch the forklift if it came off the trailer!

These were all the pick-up trucks we supported the teams with from Misawa.

Here I am moving cargo in the AT.  It's not even work using that thing because it's so much fun to operate!

Some of the dunnage for the pallets was too long so we needed a saw.  The search and rescue guys were more than happy to accommodate.

The USAID team from VA gave the four of us some patches from their uniforms, and the guys from LA gave us some jerry cans of gasoline.  Later that night I felt like I knew what its going to be like when there is no gas in a few decades because I felt like the zombie apocalypse had already come when I was excitedly dumping fuel from a can into my Pajero in the pitch black night!  They gave me 10 gallons which has me sitting just over 3/4 of a tank.  Should last me almost 2 weeks since I will mainly just be driving to and from work!

I was safe the whole time except for the time when TSgt Myers drug the trailer tires through a ditch and almost dumped the whole rig.  We decided we weren't going to take about that though!  Overall it was a great trip.  We worked hard, but I was with a great group and we had a lot of laughs during the whole process.  

Back in 2008 I had gotten my BS in Computer Science and I was interviewing for jobs in the private sector to be a software engineer.  Due to a variety of reasons I decided to re-enlist and stay in the Air Force.  It's times like these that I know I made the right call. 

As we were driving to and from Ofunato people were coming out and waving and cheering for us.  The school we were staged at had the kids come in for some sort of graduation at noon yesterday and after the ceremony all the grade-schoolers came out to the window and yelled things like "Thank you", "We love you", and all sorts of stuff about thanking and loving America too!  No one cheers for the guy who writes the algorithm that determines your car insurance rate!  As you drive out the gate at Misawa there is a sign that says "You represent the United States, be a good Ambassador!"  I think these are the situations where we really shine and show everyone what America is all about.

I found an album on Flickr with a lot of pictures of people from around the base helping with clean-up efforts in our communities of Misawa and Hachinohe.  Lots of people have been volunteering with the clean-up and if I get some more time off I plan on doing the same.  My job is considered mission essential right now though so I may not be getting too much time off.  If you want to check out some of the photos the link is here below:

I am not sure what else we will be doing in the days to follow.  I do know we have some French and German teams on the base right now who will be helping with recovery, and we have to support the voluntary evacuation of  dependents from Northeast Japan.  I will do my best to keep anyone interested informed and if you have any specific questions leave them in a comment and I will try to answer if I can.

Thank you to everyone who left kind words of encouragement.  Everyone over here that I have spoken to is just glad to be able to help.  Everyone has a job to do and we're just doing ours!


  1. You and your team are doing a great job and it's inspiring to see people like you guy's. I wanted to ask how many of the Japanese soldiers you have worked with speak English and if you have an interpreter in your team?.

    Take care and good luck.

  2. Leighton,

    The level of English varies greatly. Fortunately many of us have worked with people from all over the world so we're fairly good at using hand gestures to get the point across! I have been trying to learn as much Japanese as I can and that is useful to a point, I have a long way to go to be functional at a useful level.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing your eye witness accounts. I am afraid the news media has moved on, so it is hard to find out what is going on over there.

  4. Scotty, thank you so much for your detailed blog! It means so much to me both because your news is important, and because my husband was career USAF -- it's great to see the way you're assisting there.
    Stay warm & safe!

  5. Thanks Scotty.

    I've been keeping a close eye on whats been going on over in Japan. I've just found that Japan made a request to the Australian Military to extend their help on the relief efforts. And thankfully they accepted.

    Thanks again for your first hand views and well done.

  6. It is an amazing time to be in Japan. Thanks for blogging your adventures and sharing them with us.