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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Japan Recovery Mission - For the Living or the Dead?

By David "Jager" Burnell  
The Japan earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster:

I went to Japan after the earthquake and tsunami to help the people of Japan. I packed my gear, steadied my feet and bought a plane ticket and simply went to Tokyo in an attempt to help. The 747 wide body flight to Tokyo was virtually empty and there was lots of time to think and rest before the mission would become a gritty reality.

On March 11, 2011, the northeast coast of Japan was struck by a magnitude 9 earthquake, the strongest quake in on record in Japan. The quake was followed by a record 500 foot high tsunami which devastated the northern coast of Japan and destroyed several nuclear reactors. Loss of life was estimated to be over 20,000.

I had spent the previous January in Haiti, after the massive quake, as a volunteer in charge of the security of 120 doctors, nurses and translators. The devastation was remarkable, and my role was one of a protector instead of a rescuer. The death toll there was over 300,000 but the damage was about 20%. The north coast of Japan would be in most areas total devastation. The small towns along the coast completely disappeared.

When I first heard of this new disaster, it was unbelievable to me that there was another epic event like Haiti in such a short period of time. It, like Haiti, was unprecedented in recorded history. Complicating the disaster were the five damaged nuclear power plants all located in the one coastal area called Fukushima. These reactors began to melt down and spew out radiation the likes of which are still not completely known or acknowledged.
After the world news and reporting of this enormous event, I had a dream. As I slept in my warm and comfortable bed, in my very safe community, my eyes were opened and I saw the disaster in vivid detail. I could see the carnage and the bodies being swept in and out with the tide. I could hear and see so clearly the women of Japan and their lamentation. I saw them weep with their hands over their faces and covering their mouths. I saw them cry deeply, but with a dignity reserved only for the Japanese culture. Witnessing this dream reality broke my heart and, as I awoke to the reality of my personal comfort and peace, I knew I needed to get my gear and go to Japan; however, I also realized I did not really want to go. It was dangerous, would be expensive and the radiation had possible long term effects that I was aware based on my time serving in Europe during the Cold War. In fact, I expressed my concerns many times to my closest friends. Nevertheless the dream was a reality to me and I knew personally and deeply that I needed to be there for some reason.  In the end, I would go and do whatever I could, for as long as I could to ease the suffering of these people.

The trip would be long and difficult. I would be completely alone, self-reliant, without the benefit of language skills or any formal resources to assist me on this mission. I would be required to, in a foreign land, where everyone was running away, forge a path into Tokyo and then beyond. I would need to get past police and military restrictions, and areas locked down because of looting. I would need to cross the broken rail lines, and forge through the hot radiation zone of Fukushima in order to get up north to the tsunami stricken areas and attempt to make a difference.

Some have been quick to label these actions as heroic.  While I understand this context, in many ways I disdain the very implication of that word as it relates to me. The reason I react so strongly to this tag is that it implies super human strength or deeds. It implies the impacting in some grand way a single event where life hangs in the balance. It implies miracles coming from a single deed. It signifies to me that normal people cannot do extremely challenging things without expecting an extraordinary outcome or a medal. It, to me, sensationalizes the reality of helping someone, rescue, recovery and most military operations. I am an ordinary man with a diverse background. I perhaps am willing to act where others only think. I am willing to reach out in every way I can to make a difference. This is not to me the mark of a hero, but it is the mark of a man who has been given much, and is in his own feeble way trying to give back. I have for most of my life been trying to lift others where they lay, trying to make a difference for good. This is not complex or dynamic. It is the easiest thing in the world and the metric wherein joy and true happiness if found. It is the mark of my Los Angeles Police Veteran Father and Nearly 30 year Police Veteran brother. It is a child of adversity clinging to the things that may make a difference to those in need.

I served on a Search and Rescue Team in the Mount Rushmore Area in the 90’s, and had extensive experience in dealing with many types of trauma and technical rescue. Furthermore, I was a Dive Rescue International Public Safety SCUBA Instructor which validated that I had a strong comfort level in water environments. I have over a decade of honorable military service with much of it being unconventional. I am a successful business owner and operate a tactical gear company with a specialized training component for urban fighting. Combine this with being a certified body guard for high risk areas, and I'm a well rounded self-contained asset for a disaster zone.

After landing in Tokyo and getting my 200 pounds of gear off the plane, I made my way to a hotel and began the process of finding a way up north. Politically, the Japanese government was not allowing anyone to help in the recovery work any longer. The recovery teams from England, Australia and the United States had been asked to leave after a few short days of very hard work. The Japanese Army was going to handle the task on its own. Arriving as these recovery teams were on their way out of the country did not bode well for my hopes to assist in stemming the flow of tears by the women of Japan.

I did not connect directly with Japanese emergency management channels as I normally would, because I believed that a one man rescue team was not all that appealing to the Japanese Government and, as they were clearly sending the other recovery teams home,  I still wanted a mission. I figured I would be unconventional and get up north and then embed myself into some existing services. In my early focus to establish assets in country I came across a non-profit organization (NGO) doing relief work in the most severely stricken areas. Through a series of phone calls, emails and an iPhone translation tool, I was finally booked in a car going up north to the largest disaster zone, and the end point for the tsunami. My backup plan was a ticket on a bus that only went and returned once a week.  This did not get me to the main disaster area, or link me to an "official" organization that was already plugged in. After many days in pulling every thread of potential, I ended up in a very small car with lots of gear heading past Fukushima and the radiation. During my time in Japan, in a single week, we experienced over 100 earthquakes and had various tsunami alerts. The radiation was of serious concern to all in Tokyo, and the U.S. Embassy was asking all U.S. personnel to leaven Japan. I was on my way up north right through the middle of the five reactors melting down. As we travelled we monitored the radiation levels on a hand held meter. The meter we had maxed out at about 50 kilometers from Fukushima, and stayed that way for several hours, and another 50 kilometers north of the reactors. While we traversed Fukushima I felt like I was literally in a microwave oven. I could feel the “baking” and was prayerful that my good intentions would inspire God to avert any long lasting effects of the radiation bath I was taking.

When I arrived in Sendai, we staged for a day and then started our journey north. The Mexico recovery team called “Los Topos” was coming up from a short rest in Tokyo, and was the last team in Japan outside of the Japanese army doing any recovery work.  They were highly valued and still getting missions. Why they were allowed to stay in Japan when others were leaving is unknown to me, but the NGO they were with had some hefty clout and spoke the language. When the Mexico team meet me, they immediately adopted and titled me “Big Man” and made me a member of their team. They were intrigued by my story of coming alone and bartering my way up to the end point of the tsunami. They said that if I had that much drive to get here, working side by side with them would be easy.  The leader of this group was a grey haired and kind eyed man named Chico. He had done recovery work with his team all over the world to include New York after 9/11, Indonesia and every other major disaster on the globe over the past decade. In a word, they were really good at finding and recovering bodies. They accepted me like one of their own, and we spent the better part of a week together performing the most distasteful of duties in a very forbidding environment. These good people had nothing but small backpacks and the cloths on their backs. They, however, were well equipped with faith and purpose. They were politically savvy with the Japanese and did well in inserting themselves on missions.

When they arrived in Sendai they were driving a little white van filled to the top with people and gear. There were two of them on the top of all the gear lying prone just so they could fit. I smiled at this sight, and liked them from that moment because I knew they were unconventional and willing to do hard things in order to make a difference. They scrounged what they needed, were giving and kind to each other and most of all to me. They would literally save me from a structural collapse that crushed my chest over the coming days. I bonded quickly with these simple saints.

We drew a mission at the end point of the Tsunami where the wave entered the town at 500 feet above sea level.  It was the town of Onagawa. I cannot tell you what the official death toll was in this little town that sits at the mouth of two points on the ocean, but I know that on our first day of recovery operations there we were told that four thousand people were still missing from the area. We were also told specifically that most were children and older people.

It is at this point in the story that things get hard to articulate, especially in writing. With the absence of sight, sound, taste, touch and smell it is simply impossible for me to give you any sense of the environment and scope of the tragedy. Next to an atomic bomb, which kills everything, the tsunami divides families, and some live while others die. All run for safety, but many are unable to get away in time and total destruction is the resulting aftermath of these horrific events.

During the recovery operations I performed with Los Topos we found parts and pieces of people, toys, photos, lives and everything you can and cannot imagine in deep, thick, fish compressed mud and debris. It was as if I was able to look into the mingled and mangled lives of a people I never met who lived in the most beautiful little enclave of the world until the 3/11 disaster. From Nintendo parts to dead animals, tea sets to little Buddha statues. Dolls and more photos, day after day we looked and searched for remains and souls. This grinding work lasted from sun up to sunset. At the end of the day we were rewarded with a small rice ball with a little fish sauce inside. I ate it and was thankful for it. There was little food up north.

We stayed in the gymnasium at the top of a mountain that was untouched by the wave and the quake. This mountain housed another nuclear power plant, and it was leaking radiation. We lived next to this reactor, and slept gratefully on the wood floor of the gym in our sleeping bags. On the way up north there was lots of snow, which translated into cold and wet mud on the ground where we would work. My body heat was sapped from me as I would lay under buildings, structures and debris for hours at a time sifting through the world of chaos looking for any sign of life or remains.

One of the most bittersweet visions of the place were the few children mostly orphans who lived at the gym, also. They would come over to me while I rested and look at me like I was from another planet. They did this most likely because of my 6 foot 3 inch frame, light hair and blue eyes. I got them to laugh allot in the evenings and enjoyed their beautiful faces completely. Then the next morning off to the recovery area under the direction of the Japanese army continue to search and recover.

Bodies were still being recovered from the mountains surrounding the town as well as the town itself. We averaged 15-20 recoveries throughout the area each day. The white casualty tents at the adjacent high school stadium were full of documented and undocumented bodies. The casualty lists were posted on the wall of the stadium. When the new listed was posted people would flock to the walls to read the newly posted names. Many would openly weep and others would stare into the distance hoping for some news, any news. I spoke to many of the people and expressed love and concern as best I could with the language barrier. It was here that I heard of many dramatic stories in broken English and with some translation.

One morning, we were gathered on the top of a road that took us on foot to the sea level recovery area, and as we were ready to go down to ground zero, a 7.2 earthquake struck. The locals ran into doorways and stood. Any dignity previously perceived was gone as these people, who had suffered so much ran in fear of a repeat and more death. The earthquake lasted way too long and, to make matters worse, a tsunami alert was issued moments later. Chico considered the alert and decided we would descend to our area of operations with a plan to run to high ground should the tsunami strike. I was not in favor of this plan but said nothing. I was not about to leave my new found friends, and if you worried about every alert you would never get anything done. The bottom line is that this was dangerous work all of the time no matter what you were doing. The alert turned out to be uneventful but the quakes continued throughout the day, and my stay in Japan.

On the second day we drew a specific mission involving a father. We searched the area for many hours and cleared the entire home which had been uprooted and moved hundreds of yards up into a canyon. I was the first one in the sub section of the house and began to clear the lower portions for bodies and debris. The method is simple but effective. You displace the debris with your body like a gofer displaces dirt as he digs. The people behind you take the debris all the way out as you stabilize the place around you so it does not cave in. At the end you end up with a small tunnel. It was here that I got a face and lung full of freon from a refrigerator as I moved it out of the way to search. My goggles had been pulled down to my neck during the tunneling, but I managed to close my eyes in time to avoid being blinded by the freon gas. I did however need to be evacuated from the confined space to get my breathing back. A little oxygen and I was back in looking for the good folks that were missing. During my time under the house, there would be the occasional aftershock. We did our best to shore up things as we moved from one end to the other, but it is not a perfect science and the environment by its very nature is primitive. At one point, I managed to find a back pack in the clutter and had it brought out for identification. When the daughter saw this pack she lost it completely. She and the family cried as I had seen in my dream with their hands over their faces and covering their mouths. This time instead of waking up in a comfortable bed in a safe place in America, I walked over to the daughter and wrapped my long arms around her and said nothing. I just held her while she wept. The back pack was the one the grandfather was wearing when they left him because he refused to run. He said he would be fine, refused to leave his home, and stayed in the basement. Out team never found the man, but two months after I left he was found one mile away from the area we were searching. The water had stripped him naked, but he was in one piece. Closure had come to one family after an extensive and exhaustive search. The dream had become a reality.

Another body was found by our team on day three about 20 yards from where we had been working for two days. This man was wedged between two homes smashed together. Protocol for this kind of recovery is that the Japanese army comes in to exhume the body, and do the investigation. This was a small relief to me as I had already filled my quota of body bags in the past.

There are countless other moments that were written to my soul during this week up north, but let me offer just a few that had a lasting effect on me personally. First of all, the scale of the destruction is again impossible to comprehend without seeing it first-hand. I saw phone video the day before I went to Onagawa, and it was shocking. It did not, however, have the impact of seeing it, and touching it like first hand experience did. Little towns were completely swept out to sea. They simply disappeared and all that remained were large piles of timber, mud and things. Cars were on top of five story buildings and the larger buildings were left in skeletal form. Trains were moved up into the mountains and standing on end. I heard story after story from the survivors, and tragedy after tragedy. The stories were nearly all related to people being washed away in front of their loved ones. At some point you have to switch off in order to cope with the scale and be functional.

One evening after a long day of recovery work, I sat in the entry way to the gym and must have looked the sight. I was alone because I do not speak much Spanish, and even less Japanese. I was staring at the white tents holding the bodies when a young preppy teen came up to me and offered me his rice treat. I had noticed him looking at me for some time, but I could tell he was skittish about making contact. I finally smiled at him and within a few minutes he came over to share his little meal with me. I thanked him profusely, but refused, tapping my tummy, and telling him I was full. He was willing to give this stranger his food because he knew I was there to help. He was in the spirit of giving to a stranger, reaching out to someone else alone and exhausted. His gesture touched my heart, and I wondered what his story was.

On another occasion while I was up in Sendai waiting for the team to join me go to Onagawa, I was out in front of the apartment building sitting on my gear watching helicopters go overhead by the dozens. A little Japanese woman walked by and saw me with all my gear, and recognized my purpose. She walked up to me bowing again, and again with her white fishing hat on, and a white sanitary mask over her mouth saying, "arigato"-- “thank you” “thank you”-- over and over and over, again. She cried and bowed and repeated the process, draining tears. I gave her a big hug and said “your welcome”. They were so very grateful and gracious the entire time I was in country.

While in Sendai I ran across two American boys who were in their early twenties, and looking for answers to life. They were curious about me and my mission. They were friends, but approached me individually while I sat on some stairs outside trying to get a signal on my phone. After talking with each of them I realized that they were both searching for self, and felt that running to a disaster zone would help them in their quest to become. I was perceptive to their thoughts and listened carefully. When they were finished speaking, I offered some simple, and pure council to each of them individually. I simply told them, individually, that they needed to go home, and reconcile their lives first. I told them that after they found inner peace their ability to help others would be increased a hundred fold. They asked me if I was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and I said yes with a smile. They, too, were members of this same church, and recognized some of my words as familiar. They were here for different reasons, but both were seeking answers in Japan. During our conversations it became clear they did not want to be there, and were concerned about the mission, health and other realistic issues. Their main mission was to council the living, and help restore some hope to the needy, but this is a tall order when you are empty inside, and lacking personal clarity. After we talked a calm spirit prevailed and, I expressed my love for them, and their desire to help. I told them to go home, and resolve to make right, whatever was wrong. To move forward in life with faith and hope, and become a beacon of light so others would be attracted to them. I pleasantly found out, after my journey up north, that they both returned to the States with dignity and purpose. One of them wrote me months after my return, and said he was enlisting in the United States Air Force to become a pararescueman. The other went home and reconciled with family.

Sometimes, we may be on a mission for the living, and not the dead. Sometimes, we may be risking life and limb, and the noble act is performed in the quiet scenes off camera, and out of the view of the observer or on a set of stairs. More often than not, this has been my experience in doing this kind of work. Rarely is there music and fanfare. Rarely are there acknowledgments, and medals that celebrate valiant deeds. Most of the time, and appropriately so, it is in the quiet of the night or the privacy of a gentle conversation, or deed that yields great things. The most powerful deeds are done through love, and by an honest heart.

My adventure in Japan was not about recovering the dead of Onagawa as expected. Even though I was there and did that mission. My trip to Japan was about the living. It was about the women needing comfort, and the children needing to laugh. It was about the hug to a grateful stranger, and the embrace of confidence, and hope to wavering young men of the same faith. It was about inspiring noble hearts, and communicating without a common language, and culture. It was about distance and proximity. It was about love, kindness and service. It was about returning with honor derived from a very private experience in a very forbidding landscape. It was about faith and hope and God above.

Out of the many missions and lessons that have been learned from Haiti to Japan, and beyond. This simple truth remains: You do not need to go to a far off land or disaster to make a difference. Often times the people with the greatest needs are those within our personal reach. It is a spouse, brother or sister. It may be an aging relative or neighbor. It may be the elderly or in firmed struggling to get their mail, and needing a simple hand. We only need the eyes to see the need, the heart that is willing to help, and the courage to act immediately and without pause. Simple and real-time needs are all around us, but most of the time they are within our circle of influence where we stand.

During my mission in Japan complete strangers wrote me, and said they were praying for my well-being. People of faith, and hope from many backgrounds sent strength and prayer. During my mission in Japan, I traveled thousands of miles alone, saw the dead, lifted the living and returned without a single scratch.

May each of us this day, and this year resolve to do good in every corner, and in every possible way. May we each lift, love, listen, learn and laugh as we experience the majesty of life.