Operation Damayan: Relief in the Philippines

December 26, 2013

I was burned out. I had been the frontman for The Stitched Lips for about 6 years already. Eric Martinez, who now plays bass for the Black Mambas, and Sergio Sandoval, who is now focusing on his career and is soon to be married, formed the band in our hometown of Bell Gardens, Calif., while we were seniors in High School.


Eventually, Luis Herrera, who is currently the drummer for Sonny Vincent and the Testors, the Sorrows and the Nasty Souls, joined in and we established ourselves as an upcoming Los Angeles Punk band that was roughly in the style of the Stooges, the Kids, and the New York Dolls.

We were doing really well before disbanding. We were playing good gigs, we opened up for more established bands and started carving a mark into the scene, but the slightly more fame we got, the more discontent I felt. I wasn’t making any money and it really was like a job. I lost interest, and we decided to split. That was the end of a huge chapter in my life, rock ‘n’ roll was everything.

In May of 2011, about one month after we split up, I enlisted in the Navy. I went in there expecting to receive a job that consisted of hard labor, I mean; I did join the military after all, right? Well, much to my surprise, I was offered the very rare job of Mass Communication Specialist (MC), basically, my job as a U.S. Sailor is to document the Navy’s history and mission through photography, photojournalism, videography, broadcasting, news writing, graphic design, print and production, and public affairs tactics. I lucked out, didn’t I? 

After boot camp, I went straight to my specialty school. I went through six months of training in Fort Meade, Md. There, I found I was pretty good at photojournalism. I was given orders to the U.S. Navy’s forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73), based out of Yokosuka, Japan. 

I went back home for about three weeks before reporting to my command. I played my very last show at my house and it was the best going away present I could ever receive. More than 100 people showed up to this private show to see the greatest band that never was. We sold our never before released EP, and they all sold out. People went nuts. It was a great feeling, but it was time to leave it behind and start a new chapter.

I’ve been at this command for a little over a year now, primarily working as a photojournalist aboard the ship. I write stories and take photos of our daily operations, ranging anywhere from launching and recovering aircraft, going up in helicopters to photograph ship formations, various training evolutions and community service events during our various port visits. Occasionally, we get sent to different ships or different commands to provide media coverage for various operations. 

The ship departed for its 2013 patrol June 26. We visited Australia, South Korea, Singapore and finally Hong Kong. During our Hong Kong port visit, our ship was recalled. The Republic of the Philippines was hit by the super typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan. The typhoon left many areas in the Philippines decimated, with many dead in its aftermath. Our mission was to go to Philippines and provide relief for those who needed it most. We were to provide water, food, and medical care to disaster victims. The George Washington media team and myself were there to document it.

On Nov. 14, the ship arrived in the Philippines. I departed the ship around the afternoon via MH-60S Seahawk from the “Golden Falcons” of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 12; I was supposed to be temporarily assigned to the Arleigh-Burke class guided missile destroyer USS Lassen, where I was to document the ship’s participation in the relief effort, but first, I had to get dropped off in Tacloban Air Base. The helicopter had to make a few supply drops before they dropped me off on the ship. 

We flew over Philippines to our destination and I saw firsthand the aftermath of the typhoon. From up above, I saw the trees that looked like they were blowing in the wind, but there was no wind blowing. I saw villages that were surrounded by debris and rubble from buildings that were missing roofs, windows, and walls or were just completely gone. There were trucks and cars that were flipped over.   Every city that we flew over was in ruins.

I had no idea how much worse it was down there than I could see from above. The Seahawk soon dropped supplies into Tacloban. Sailors were waiting in the rain, directing aircraft. As soon as these supplies came in, Sailors rushed the pallets to get them ready for distribution. I didn’t know how long the Sailors were there, but they sure as hell looked busy. They were all Sailors who volunteered to help. They were probably doing more intense work than what they were doing on the ship. They didn’t care, they all wanted to help.

The first thing I saw when we reached the air base was the line of disaster victims that were waiting to get evacuated. They were coming out of a building that was barely standing. These people were waiting in the aftermath of a chaotic environment and all men, women, children and elderly had a blank, desperate look on their face. Most of them only had the clothes they were wearing. Few had backpacks, purses or some form of luggage. Many were soaking wet from the on-and-off again tropical thunderstorms, but the ones that were helping them the most, were the Marines assigned to Logistics Battalion 4, 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade.

Marines were lined up, escorting and loading supplies onto MV-22 Ospreys and C-130s. They were tired, wet and their uniforms were all messy. They had been there all day and night helping the people that needed it most. They never once fell out, they made sure everyone got to where they needed and got the supplies they needed. They didn’t stop; they kept on going.

I walked through lines of disaster victims, aid relief tents, debris and trash and made my way onto where the Marines had set up their tents. Once I got there, I spoke to a Marine officer who was curious about the transport capabilities we had on the ship. He then informed me that there were more Marines coming on foot from Manila and pointed out that they were trying to make room for them. I looked over to the open field and noticed that there were Marines clearing out debris, trash and bodies from the grassy areas. I made my way over and was going to start taking picture, but ultimately decided against it. I didn’t want family members or friends to find out their loved ones were gone through a photograph on a newspaper.

A couple of hours and photographs later, I was informed that I would not be going to Lassen. I went back on the Seahawk and we made quick drop off in a small island. It was torn apart. People rushed out of their houses to get our attention. They kept signaling at us to land. We circled around a couple of times but we found no suitable place to land the Seahawk. We had to hover over a small patch of land right off the island to drop off supplies. The Aircrewman had to hoist himself and box after box, 50-pound bag after 50-pound bag; he lowered himself to deliver those supplies. People were scrambling to get them and many others thanked and waved as we flew off. It was great to see joy in such a devastating area. 

I got back to the ship and I was told to keep my equipment packed just in case I were to go out again. Later that day, I was informed that I would be going to the Ticonderoga class guided-missile cruiser USS Cowpens (CG 63). I spent my first day on Cowpens settling in, but the next day I was up on a Seahawk from the “Scorpions” of Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron Light (HSL) 49. For the next four days, I flew with them to document everything they were doing. We would pick up water from George Washington, pick up food from Tacloban and deliver them to different areas. 

At one point, we picked up a couple of Army Rangers who assisted us in evaluating which villages needed supplies and medical attention. We would drop them off, pick up supplies, drop those off, and pick up the Rangers and any evacuees they brought with them. I recall them bringing on a woman who had a bandage wrapped around her hand. I asked one of the Rangers how she got injured. He informed me her hand was severed by debris as she was trying to pull herself into shelter during the typhoon. It was getting infected without the proper medical treatment. I didn’t see here after we dropped her off. I was just glad these guys were there to help.

Back on the Cowpens, the crewmembers started collecting candy, cookies, cereal, chips and any snacks they could get their hands on. The ship store was running out of items because of all the snacks people were donating. Some went ahead and wrote messages on the packaging. Others made goody bags and left a note in each bag. Every time we handed them out, kids would rush to us, laughing and smiling. They would shake our hands and gives us high fives. At one point shortly after handing out snacks, a woman grabbed my hand and kept thanking me as tears streamed down her face. 

The look on her face, the children laughing and smiling as they waved by, the feelings and emotions I felt and continue to feel is very gratifying. The experience I had there was something new that I’ve never experienced. Seeing it on television or photograph doesn’t do it any justice. 

Although our armed forces are an asset of war, many seem to overlook the work that we do to help those who need it most. There were many Sailors who voluntarily gave up their rack, ventilated spaces, and hot food to go sleep in a tent and work a full day carrying box after box of heavy supplies onto helicopters and I can tell you that none of them have any regrets.


-Ricardo Guzman-

Big Wheel Contributor

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