Okinawa Marines happy to help Myanmar cyclone victims
Stars and Stripes May 15, 2008
PATTAYA, Thailand — Heaving boxes and sweating mightily in the 100-plus-degree midday Thai heat, Pfc. William Valencia remembered it was his birthday.
Turning 20 amid a contested Myanmar aid effort is not an event he’s likely to forget, Valencia said Tuesday as he packed boxes of hygiene kits and water cans for the victims of Cyclone Nargis.
"It’s not a big deal, but I think it’s pretty memorable," Valencia said. "Not every birthday do you get to help on a community service, I guess."
But it is unclear when the supplies Valencia and his Okinawa-based Combat Logistics Regiment 3 prepared at Utapao Air Base would get to Myanmar’s victims. No other U.S. military flights had been cleared beyond the three initially approved by Myanmar’s junta government as of Tuesday.
Pacific Command leader Adm. Timothy Keating and Henrietta Fore, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, met with Myanmar officials Monday when the first C-130 flight landed, but no promises were made, they said.
Two more C-130s landed in the devastated country Tuesday, delivering bottled water, blankets, mosquito netting and plastic sheeting for shelters, bringing the total tally of U.S. aid to 72,650 pounds, the military reported.
USAID pledged $16 million in food aid, but it is unclear how, or when, the aid would be delivered to the Irrawaddy delta.
Flooding from the May 2 cyclone was still visible from the air, said U.S. Marine Sgt. Andres Alcaraz, who rode Monday’s plane to Yangon, Myanmar’s capital.
"The terrain was pretty wet," he said.
He didn’t leave the airfield as Myanmar officials and the U.S. military unloaded the material by hand.
"The crew was kind of nervous going over there. We didn’t know what to expect," Alcaraz said. "But the people were very nice. We smiled at them and they smiled back. It seemed like they wanted the supplies."
Keating told Myanmar officials that the U.S. military could devote numerous resources to the effort and transport 200,000 pounds of relief goods a day.
About 11,000 servicemembers are already in Thailand for Cobra Gold, an annual multinational military exercise. Some units, like Okinawa’s Marine Aerial Refuel Transfer Squad 152, have switched to humanitarian detail.
"It’s an honor," said Staff Sgt. Ronald Beville before he flew to Myanmar on Tuesday. "We’re in the area, might as well help out."
However, questions about how much aid is needed and when or if it can be delivered, which can be answered only by Myanmar’s ruling junta, means some servicemembers don’t know when they’ll be going home.
Sgt. Dustin Letourneau said his wife is expecting a baby at the end of the month and he’s not sure how long he’ll be extended.
"We’re expecting the baby May 28 — I hope I’ll be home by then," he said.