A grim reality met with compassion

A firefighter with CA-TF2 and his live-human scent working dog search debris for tsunami victims during a search and recovery mission in Ofunato, Japan on March 15, 2011.  The Los Angeles County Fire Urban Search and Rescue Team, Task Force 2, travelled with the 452nd Air Mobility Wing, March Air Reserve Base, Calif., to the earthquake and tsunami stricken areas of Japan just four days after the devastation.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Technical Sgt. Daniel St. Pierre)

A firefighter with CA-TF2 and his live-human scent working dog search debris for tsunami victims during a search and recovery mission in Ofunato, Japan on March 15, 2011. The Los Angeles County Fire Urban Search and Rescue Team, Task Force 2, travelled with the 452nd Air Mobility Wing, March Air Reserve Base, Calif., to the earthquake and tsunami stricken areas of Japan just four days after the devastation. (U.S. Air Force photo/Technical Sgt. Daniel St. Pierre)

Four days later:  In Otunato, Japan, boats and cars alike were tossed into buildings and buried in rubble during the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Technical Sgt. Daniel St. Pierre)

Four days later: In Otunato, Japan, boats and cars alike were tossed into buildings and buried in rubble during the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. (U.S. Air Force photo/Technical Sgt. Daniel St. Pierre)

A Japanese man sifts through the aftermath of the deadly tsunami that ripped through his city days earlier.  The Los Angeles County Fire Urban Search and Rescue Team, Task Force 2, travelled with the 452nd Air Mobility Wing, March Air Reserve Base, Calif., to the earthquake and tsunami stricken areas of Japan just four days after the devastation.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Technical Sgt. Daniel St. Pierre)

A Japanese man sifts through the aftermath of the deadly tsunami that ripped through his city days earlier. The Los Angeles County Fire Urban Search and Rescue Team, Task Force 2, travelled with the 452nd Air Mobility Wing, March Air Reserve Base, Calif., to the earthquake and tsunami stricken areas of Japan just four days after the devastation. (U.S. Air Force photo/Technical Sgt. Daniel St. Pierre)

Firefighter Gamble, CA-TF2 breaks a window of a car to search it for tsunami victims in Ofunato, Japan on March 15, 2011. The Los Angeles County Fire Urban Search and Rescue Team, Task Force 2, travelled with the 452nd Air Mobility Wing, March Air Reserve Base, Calif., to the earthquake and tsunami stricken areas of Japan just four days after the devastation.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Technical Sgt. Daniel St. Pierre)

Firefighter Gamble, CA-TF2 breaks a window of a car to search it for tsunami victims in Ofunato, Japan on March 15, 2011. The Los Angeles County Fire Urban Search and Rescue Team, Task Force 2, travelled with the 452nd Air Mobility Wing, March Air Reserve Base, Calif., to the earthquake and tsunami stricken areas of Japan just four days after the devastation. (U.S. Air Force photo/Technical Sgt. Daniel St. Pierre)

Members of the Los Angeles County Urban Search and Rescue Team, Task Force 2, move to another location on their search grid through the tsunami-ravished streets of Japan.  They travelled with the 452nd Air Mobility Wing, March Air Reserve Base, Calif., to the earthquake and tsunami stricken areas of Japan just four days after the devastation.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Technical Sgt. Daniel St. Pierre)

Members of the Los Angeles County Urban Search and Rescue Team, Task Force 2, move to another location on their search grid through the tsunami-ravished streets of Japan. They travelled with the 452nd Air Mobility Wing, March Air Reserve Base, Calif., to the earthquake and tsunami stricken areas of Japan just four days after the devastation. (U.S. Air Force photo/Technical Sgt. Daniel St. Pierre)

MARCH AIR RESERVE BASE, Calif. -- By I received the call late on a Friday night before a Reserve drill weekend. "Hi Sergeant St. Pierre," said my first sergeant. "How fast can you get to base?"

There was a C-17 Globemaster III inbound to March Air Reserve Base from McChord Air Force Base to pick up rescue equipment for the earthquake and tsunami relief effort in Japan. I was to be on the flight so I could document the subsequent unloading of the C-17 at Misawa Air Force Base.

I quickly gathered everything I'd need for the supposed 24-hour mission: my photo gear, one change of underclothes and a Gore-Tex in case it got cold on the plane. Not being sure if I'd have a place to stage my gear during the mission, I had to travel light enough that I'd be able to carry everything and shoot at the same time. I arrived at our squadron's building an hour after I received the call. There, I picked up a BGAN (a portable satellite transmitter) and stuffed an MRE in my pocket because I didn't expect anyone to be able to spare any food for me.

On the aircraft were three members of the Los Angeles County Fire Urban Search and Rescue Team, Task Force Two. They were accompanying their pallets of equipment over to Japan to prepare the logistics for their team. Talking with them, they seemed very willing to have me attach with the team as they ventured into Japan. This was one of the options Senior Master Sgt. David Smith had briefed me on before I left March, but since the C-17 I was flying on would be returning to the U.S. immediately, I would have to facilitate the rest of the trip myself.

After documenting the off-loading of the aircraft, I found the only building on base with power and transmitted my imagery to DIMOC (a Defense Department imagery server). I checked in with 4th Combat Camera Squadron and was prepared to join CA-TF2. An Air Force news unit in Japan let me use their phone and Internet connection to coordinate the details of remaining in Japan. Then, I checked into billeting, which, at that time, was the base gym filled with hundreds of Vietnam-era cots and matching sleeping bags.

After the rest of CA-TF2 arrived in Japan, we convoyed six hours south to Ofunato, a coastal city that was going to be the team's first search area. It was strange to me that during the entire ride, I didn't see any evidence that there had been a huge earthquake. Just as I was beginning to think that it was going to be an uneventful trip, we reached Ofunato.

Within the distance of a couple of houses, the city transformed from looking completely normal to being completely destroyed and swept away. I've been deployed a couple of times and have seen plenty of damage from explosions to vehicles and buildings, but this was shocking. It looked like a wrecker had torn though the houses, leaving nothing but a square mile pile of tiny pieces tossed with boats, cars and telephone poles.

I had nothing to compare it to but "end of the world" movies where everything is destroyed and only a few survivors roam through the rubble.

The team consisted of three bus loads of searchers equipped with a dozen live human scent dogs. These dogs could search an area at a slow run, nimbly scrambling over the uneven surface of the debris. The first hour of searching revealed the grim truth: we would not find any survivors. If anyone had survived the tsunami without being swept into the sea, the exposure to the frigid water and below-freezing temperatures made for miniscule odds. The team searched for 10 hours and recovered only six bodies.

The support and helpfulness the team and I received during the trip was inspirational. Random aerial porters offered me home cooked meals with their families. A chief master sergeant removed his gloves and gave them to me after seeing my own gloves weren't cutting it. People, without being asked to, were working together with no thought of culture, race, or speech barriers, and I observed countless junior enlisted service members who were selflessly volunteering 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

Everywhere I turned, I saw compassion and a desire to help from people who were already giving more than their fair share. That's how I'll remember this trip.

Although the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami was devastating, the relief efforts afterward were a testament to the true character of humans. Beneath all of the squabbling and quarreling we see on the news, we're in this together and we prove it when it comes down to it.

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