When you think of SF, operators and intense gunfights tend to come to mind. We are operators and we love our gunfights (and do them well) but some of the most rewarding moments of our careers come from humanitarian efforts, which is something that many people don't consider when they think Green Beret.
In November of 2013, Super Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest hurricanes ever recorded, slammed into the Eastern Philippines. It killed by some estimates over 10,000 people, injured tens of thousands more, and left over a million people homeless.
The previous month, October, our SFG(A) company had arrived in the Philippines for what we had intended to be a classic Foreign Internal Defense (FID) mission. We intended to partner with local Philippine units and train, advise and assist them to build up their capabilities internally. Having recently returned from a 9-month Afghanistan rotation only a few months prior, I was looking forward to a change of pace and the tropical weather.
It felt like we finally set up the few buildings we intended to make use of on the island of Mindanao when we got the WARNO that we needed to prep to either 1) Evacuate should the typhoon change course or 2) Be prepared to set out and assist in whatever way was possible after the typhoon passed. We prepped for both outcomes as we packed, repacked and planned non-stop while we tracked the progress of the storm. When it became clear the storm would pass just north of our location, we made final preparations to head out and assist the areas we knew had been obliterated.
Myself and a very small team consisting of a CPT, an 18E and an 18C were chosen to fly to Guiuan, the city in eastern Samar that was the epicenter of where the typhoon made landfall. We loaded into a helicopter and made the multi-hour flight over to where we would remain for the next 10 days. It was absolutely surreal to fly over the clearly demarcated storm edges as we moved from lush jungle over to entire hillsides without a single palm tree standing. When we arrived in Guiuan, we saw how quickly the U.S. had committed to helping the Philippines. A Marine FARP (Forward Arming and Refueling Point) was in the process of being stood up, and a contingency of Air Force CCT’s had already set up camp on some high ground nearby and were directing flights in and out of the WW2 era air strip that remained. (They had followed the trail edge of the storm in, while we were further west and had to wait for the storm to pass)
Our small team unloaded our supplies, set up our Alaskan tent, and began to assess our surroundings. To say the devastation was complete would not be an understatement. Every single tree seemed to have been uprooted or blown over, and debris from homes, buildings and even pieces of ships were strewn everywhere. As the rescue effort intensified, Osprey’s from Okinawa began arriving and offloading additional Marines to help with the rescue effort. These Osprey’s and their powerful rotor wash gave us an additional hazard that we had to contend with, flying debris. Corrugated steel was now flying through the air like massive razor blades! We grabbed as many marines as we could and stuffed all the steel debris inside the holes of uprooted trees to prevent some decapitations or other serious injuries.
As the rescue efforts began picking up, and the CCT’s kept working their magic on directing the delivery of supplies, equipment and personnel, our team went into the town to help coordinate our resources and put our abilities to good use. We were tasked with/determined a need for 3 major functions. The first was to guide incoming NGO’s and their supplies from the airstrip to the appropriate holding facility, and pair them with the right service organization. For example, an NGO that brought medical supplies would be driven to the Doctors Without Borders medical hospital that was being established. The second was to coordinate flights with the Marine Osprey’s, Seahawk helo’s and anything else that we could get our hands on and conduct aerial assessments of the nearby islands and small villages to see what infrastructure remained, and what assistance was needed. Lastly, to provide medical care and assistance whenever feasible within the mission set.
First, let me digress a little into the massive “WHAT IN THE HOLY HELL” shenanigans of well-meaning NGO organizations. In the hectic aftermath of the Typhoon, a lot of organizations, from the Red Cross to Delta Airlines, decided to be a part of the rescue effort. Cool, more power to them. Except here’s a thought…if you are going to volunteer, have an ounce of awareness about you are getting into.
There was one instance where an American company hoping to gain some good PR hired a private jet to fly some employees who happened to be EMT’s or Nurses into Guiuan to deliver medical supplies. These people walked down the flights stairs, where I greet them and ask how long they intend on staying. “2-3 days” they reply. Okay, no problem. I tell them to grab their equipment, food and supplies quickly so the aircraft can clear the tarmac and I’d bring them to their designated spot to set up. They all stop immediately and reply “umm, we don’t have any supplies except for a few changes of clothes and the medical supplies.” Ummm….what? “Yeah, we thought we would be staying in a trailer or tent that had already been set up.” Okay…What about food? “We thought it would be supplied as part of the rescue effort.” Alright let me get this straight. Less than 36 hours after what is essentially an F5 tornado completely devastated everything for 200 miles in every direction, you show up with no food, no gear, no equipment of any kind and expect there to be infrastructure and food available to you? However, being a representative of the U.S. and keeping my “You all are seriously some of the biggest morons this world has ever produced” comments to myself, I politely inform them that we do not have any of those things. At this point one of the women says loudly enough for everyone to hear “well F*ck this then, I’m going home”. They all got back on their private jet and departed. I wish that was my only story of NGO’s begging for water, food, or shelter, but alas, there are more which I will save for later posts.
By now, USAID had begun delivering thousands of pre-packaged food and water rations to Guiuan and Tacloban to be distributed to those devastated by the storm. SF ODA’s from around the Philippines were flying in and breaking off into small teams. They would load up the Osprey’s and Seahawk’s with these supplies, and using reconnaissance information we had gathered previously plus a map of the outlying islands, fly out to deliver the food and supplies. 18D’s from the teams would, if possible, provide immediate medical assessments or care. They also determined if any villagers needed immediate evacuation to a hospital. In other instances, the Osprey’s or helicopters could only get to a low hover because of debris and drop the food below to the people. Time after time these small teams of SF guys would return and enthusiastically recount how thankful and appreciative the people were, and how seeing the supplies being delivered brought tears of gratitude to everyone’s faces.
One small event that still resonates with me is when we came across a woman who was clearly in distress. She had been on the phone with her sister who lived in the U.S. as the typhoon passed overhead, terrified and alone. Her phone cut out and her house collapsed on her in the storm, with only her hiding beneath the kitchen table saving her life. 4 days later, there was still no cellphone service, and she hadn’t been able to tell her sister that she survived. Figuring it was better to ask forgiveness than permission, I allowed her to use our satellite phone to call her sister to let her know she was alive (shhhh don’t tell the government). Hearing her connect with her sister and her burst into tears at the happiness of being able to tell her that she was alive and okay is something that still swells my heart with pride and happiness all these years later.
Our 4-man crew wasn’t given a direct order to accomplish a checklist of tasks when we arrived, we were trusted to use our skillset and maturity to make an impact the best way we knew how. We roughed it in a cramped and hot tent, had more bug bites than we could count, got only a few hours of sleep a night at most, and dealt with competing interests from NGO’ like Doctors without Borders (efficient but not a fan of the U.S. military), Marines, the Philippine Gov. and many more, but we managed to figure it out (eventually)! Not one of us complained, because we were all completely focused and dedicated to helping our Filipino friends. The attitude amongst all military members there seemed to be only of purpose and gratitude.
No amount of rehearsing or planning can necessarily prepare you for that kind of mission. So much of it is thinking creatively, adjusting to the needs that you see, and having the confidence in yourself and the suggestions you make to enable a difference. I only handled a handful of medical cases from my location, but this was an excellent reminder to me that being an 18D is not just about medicine. We are SF first, and our MOS second. Our small 4-man SF team advised Admirals and Generals who came to visit, and our suggestions were often implemented rapidly. We welcomed the Philippine Sec of Defense and the Vice President to the city, and talked to more VIP’s than I can even recall. We did so with the full authority and confidence of our government and wearing the long tab that we had earned years prior. It was humbling and incredible to watch the professionalism of the CCT’s do their work guiding literally thousands of flights in and out over that period of time, 24/7, and doing it without complaint or error.
While I am always proud to be an American, this mission truly swelled my heart with pride to make such a noticeable difference in the lives of those who needed it so badly at the time. Though I deployed all over the world in many different environments, this mission was far and away the most rewarding of my entire military career.