Thursday, November 28, 2013

Tacloban, Part VIII

Sometimes, even in the midst of a disaster area you have to stop and notice the beauty. 
Some people might think it a mockery. How could there be beauty in the midst of so much suffering? How dare we enjoy beauty, how dare we rest? Why are we not working still, pushing ourselves, doing something to relieve the suffering? There is no time for anything as frivolous as beauty. It merely mocks the loss of the people who have lost everything.
But then I have to ask, is it really a mockery after all? 

Or is it perhaps a sort of message? Perhaps even an answer?

For behold, all will be well, and All will be well, and all manner of things will be most well. 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Tacloban, Part VII

A concrete and rebar ammo bunker that got ripped apart by the storm surge. Really.
We landed at Tacloban Airport with not a clue what we were supposed to be doing. There were six of us and only two of us had an explicit job. The Air Force CCT guys were suppose to assess the airfield and get it up and running. The rest of us were supposed to support them.

We had food and water to get us until the next day’s resupply, but the weight restrictions had been so tight and the Air Force CCT kit was so heavy, we had not been able to pack much of anything else. No tent.

We did have six mattresses, little foam pads, twin sized, wrapped in plastic. One of the guys had a hammock, which he strung up in a baggage trolley, so I took his mattress and mine. I laid mine out on the ground and set a heavy tuffbox on each end. Given that I am 5’9” tall and the mattress was barely 6’ long, this shortened my bed considerably, but the rain was coming on and I needed an overhead shelter. I laid the second mattress across the top of the two boxes and weighted down the ends with another box and some large rocks. As homeless shelters go, I’ve seen worse.

The rain started around 10:30 PM. At first it was no more than a steady, cheerful shower, not too cold, just exceedingly wet. I was stripped down to a pair of shorts and my Merrel Trail Glove running shoes, which can get as wet as you like without being ruined, or even especially uncomfortable, so I didn’t mind a little damp. That is fortunate, since I was destined to be quite damp indeed before morning.

At first all I had to worry about was the splashing of gargantuan raindrops in the puddles that rapidly formed around my cozy little dwelling place. Then water puddled on the top mattress and it sagged and when I moved it poured its burden off one edge, onto the bottom mattress. In no time at all I was lying on my side in a puddle. My shelter lasted about an hour before so much water soaked through the holes in the plastic that the mattress was completely sodden, and began to drip continuously. Then, just to put the cherry on top, it began to downpour torrentially. Yes. That is a word.
Home Sweet Home!! (There used to be another tuffbox holding up the left side.)

I have spent more comfortable nights, but all in all, it could have been worse. At least it was a warm rain, and I had some overhead cover. You might not think that makes much of a difference, but the truth is that it does. It is one thing to sleep in a puddle, but when you are wearing next to nothing and it is warm enough, it actually is not that bad. However, continually having torrential tropical depression type rain pounding into you, splashing on your face, chest, back, legs, etc. that is something else entirely. Each rain drop, in hitting you, emphasizes the overall discomfort, wakes you up again, and generally just brings your focus back to the here and now. I assure you it is hardly conducive to a restful night’s sleep.

The worst thing was actually my right hip. It turned into a pressure point because I was sleeping on my side and didn’t have room to stretch out, and the mattress was only an inch and a half of foam on cement. Apparently foam loses its cushioning ability when it is saturated. Who knew? 

At any rate, there I was, and there I stayed until morning. It took the whole rest of the day for the shriveled, macerated look to go out of my hands, probably because it continued to rain more or less constantly until about lunch, and the last rainstorm wasn’t until after 5:00. By then, however, we had received a tent and were figuring out how to set it up. Better late than never, right?

Was it worth it? 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Tacloban, Part VI

You know, people are beautiful, crazy things. When I went back to camp to catch some sleep the night that we finally got the airfield moving at night, a Filipino man called out to me as I walked by. “Hey, Sir!”

He was squatting on the concrete, with his wife and their littlest baby squatting next to him, and six or eight little dark eyed chitlins squatting all in a row behind him, along with some aunties or big sisters or some such relative.

“Hey Sir,” he said again and gestured to the line behind him. He was hopelessly at the back of the crowd, and there was no way he was getting on an airplane tonight. But he had seen lines of people being moved to the airplanes, and he had figured out what we were doing and had separated his family and lined them all up in a row, ready to go.

“Wow,” I said, “All lined up?”

He nodded and smiled hopefully and his wife and babies all looked up at me with big, dark, hopeful eyes that just made me feel like the biggest ogre on the planet for not getting them out right away. (Okay, so I am a sucker for little brown babies with big brown eyes. So sue me.)

What a leader! What a man! I could see that he truly cared about his family, and keeping them together and making sure they were safe was the most important thing to him. They trusted him. They squatted in line behind him, one behind the other, keeping quiet and still and cheerful among the chaos all around them.

What I would not have given to move them right to the front of the line, right then! But I could not. That would have caused a riot, in all likelihood, and that would have shut down loading operations. I had to smile and say, “Good for you. Hang in there,” and walk away.

When I went back again the next day, they were still squatting there, all lined up, and he smiled at me hopefully again. He was still cheerful, but he looked worn out. Other people were still in line ahead of him. I had to get Marilee’s people out, because I had promised, and I owed her. He watched that plane leave sadly, and moved his family into the next spot.

After that I was no longer running the airfield. The Marines had taken over now and I had to go do other things. As I left for the last time, he smiled at me, still hopefully, but with a bit more fear in his eyes. All I could do was point to the only seven rows of people still in front of him, count them out and smile encouragingly, and then walk away.

He was able to get his family out later that afternoon, I think, because there were several planes in later that day, and I didn’t see him again.

Blessings upon him and his family.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Tacloban, Part V

I walked through the yard where they were collecting the bodies of those killed by the typhoon. They bring them in on trucks, collecting them from out of treetops along the beach, rubble piles in the city, drowned vehicles along the street. A body bag hides a lot about the person it contains, but it cannot hide the size. One old lady was swelled up so huge they couldn’t zip the bag, so they left her with the bag closed to her waist, one arm stiffened over her face, like she was trying to block out the sun.
One body bag had a pair of business shoes sticking out of a rip in the corner.
One body bag had only a single lump in it. A two foot lump in a six foot bag.
The juices oozed out of them and ran across the cobblestones. You cannot get sick from the smell. Death is not contagious.
Only two feet long.
They only had a few trucks left running. They needed them to haul bodies. They needed them to deliver food. So they used the same trucks to do both. Fortunately a weird, twitchy, ex-Pat guy who owns a pest control business donated his time, equipment and 300 gallons of boric acid to spraying out the trucks between uses.
They wanted him to spray down the cadavers at first. He told them it was a waste of time. Save the chemicals to protect the living.
Another lump was just about four feet long.
They do not have time to identify them. At first a few were found and identified by relatives, but by now the decomposition is too advanced. The National Bureau of Investigation is burying them deep in a mass grave, in single file lines, with layers of lime and dirt between each layer of bodies. Later, if they get the orders they may exhume them and forensically identify them.
I think the mother of that tiny lump would want to know.
Do you know how hard it is to get cadaver smell out of your clothes?

I asked God, why?
I think He means us to ask. I think He wants us to challenge Him for an answer. If we do not seek to know His mind can we really have any part in Him.
His answer came back like a fragment of a line of verse: “They died as they had lived, in the palm of my hand. Their mass grave was dug with the point of a nail.”

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Tacloban, Part IV

I got an incredible opportunity recently to go to the typhoon disaster zone in the Philippines to help with relief efforts. The next few posts are going to be a series, things I wrote to kind of decompress after returning to my regular mission.

When we finally did manage to load people at night it was almost accidental. We still had several hundred people on the tarmac. Marilee’s group had long since been overrun and surrounded and even though they had originally been first in line they were now completely enveloped by this new crowd, and this new crowd was big, and not willing to go back to their old places by the main gate. Airplanes were going to land all night starting at 10:00 PM so I rushed down to the airfield after supper and started trying to organize a night rescue. First I pleaded with the crowd through the police guards, telling them that airplanes were going to be coming and going all night, but that we were being told we could not load them if people were going to be bum rushing them. I explained that if they could all be patient and wait their turn, then we would be able to load many airplanes and get hundreds of them out. If any of them pushed or tried to run around the line, we would have to cut it off and then no one would get out until the next day.

The crazy thing is that it worked. They were still panicky, and they still begged and pleaded to be put on the airplane first, but there was very little pushing and shoving, very little trying to sneak around the group to get in. Most of those who snuck around the group to cut in line were officers and their families, who seemed to think that the rules did not apply to them.

I had a Philippines Air Force lieutenant who spoke excellent English and got the problem. He understood. There was also an Air Force corporal, a lowly corporal with crazy poofy hair, who likewise got the concept. Between them they were worth more than all the senior officers on the scene put together. They were the ones doing the actual work of setting up the police cordon around the crowd, directing police to the areas they needed to be, deciding who was going to be pulled out of the crowd first, setting them in lines of ten and keeping order among the lines. They did the work of making sure the lines were single-file, and no one cut from one line to the next. They were not afraid physically to grab people and set them down where they needed them to be.

It is remarkable how little actual work I did. A lot of running back and forth, seeing potential problems and yelling them over the engine noise, directly into the ear of the lieutenant, but they did all the actual work. Why did I get so tired then? Possibly because, once again, I had been going for about 20 hours by the time I turned in. It was worth it though. I had finally gotten a system built that allowed us to load at night. It wasn’t really me building it, I just happened to be around when a whole bunch of factors over which I had no control all came together, and I saw that the time was right and we got to it and it worked. I was able to teach it to two US Marine E-5’s (Sergeants) who took it and ran with it. I sometimes make fun of jarheads, but these two were good dudes, smart, compassionate, and squared the heck away. One of them looked like the Terminator. Even I felt small next to him.

Between them and the Filipino Air Force folks, they loaded 250 more people between the time I went to bed at about 12:30 AM and 4 AM. When I checked back in with them the following midnight, they were still going. 

That was a good night’s work.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Tacloban, Part III

I got an incredible opportunity recently to go to the typhoon disaster zone in the Philippines to help with relief efforts. The next few posts are going to be a series, things I wrote to kind of decompress after returning to my regular mission.  This is a long post, but I felt it was worthwhile to tell the whole story.

It is rare to meet someone who is truly unselfish. It is the most humbling thing in the world, and, hopefully, once you have seen it you will never be the same.

At the end of our second day on the airfield, as we were trying to load up one of the last C-130’s that would be landing during daylight hours, we almost lost control of the crowd. In fact, we did lose control. 500 people pushed through the main gate, onto the tarmac and began moving in a vast, desperate wave, straight for the front of the airplane. The police managed to run and form a cordon around them and box them in before they came anywhere near the running engines, but it was clearly too dangerous to continue loading planes, especially once night fell and we could no longer see the people. No pilot would even land with that many people on the tarmac.

We had to do something. The police tried to push the people back, outside the main gate, but they wouldn’t go. They had been standing in line all day, most of them, with no food or water, and now, having finally reached the front, the tarmac, with freedom and safety in sight, they could not bear the thought of spending the night there. Even worse, they refused to be pushed back outside the main gate where they would lose their places in line.

A Filipino lady named Gigi stepped out of the crowd at this point, and said to me in excellent English, “Sir, I know I am just a passenger, but these people do not want to go back out into line because they are afraid of losing their places. Can you at least tell us when the next plane is going to be here? We need to manage their expectations.”

“I do not know when the next plane is going to arrive, and I do not know if we are going to be allowed to load people. It will be too dangerous in the dark.” It was not a very convincing answer, but she passed it back, and began working to try to convince the people to cooperate. Another woman, named Didit, came out of the crowd to help, along with a man whose name I did not get. Between the three of them, they did more than the police to get everyone backed up. I found a room that used to be part of the terminal complex, perhaps 40’ by 40’ and we convinced the crowd to back into it. They didn’t all fit, and it must have been stiflingly hot and claustrophobic inside, but at least they were off the tarmac.

I went to take care of a bunch of other things, and when I came back, Gigi and Didit were busy organizing the people, trying to get them to collect together by family and sit quietly. They updated me on how the people were doing, (“Hungry, tired and thirsty,”) and then introduced me to another civilian who had volunteered to help. They yelled her name over the engine noise, so I didn’t quite catch it, but it had an “M” and an “R” in it so I thought it was “Marina.”

She was a tiny Filipino lady in a red cross shirt. She had been working her way through the crowd, organizing the crowd into families and getting feedback from them on what they needed, who had family or other contacts in Manila, and so forth. She was short. When I say short, I mean she was short even for a Filipino lady. The top of her head was about on a level with my chest, and she was completely invisible until she stepped out of the crowd. She came right over to me, grabbed my sleeve and pulled me down to her level so she could yell in my ear, “Sir! These people need water right away. They are very thirsty.”

I had to laugh. I am not used to being bossed around by people half my size, but she was taking their cause so completely to heart she did not hesitate. I thought to myself, “Good Lord, Woman, you are awesome.” Little did I know just how awesome she was, but I was going to find out.

I promised to get them water, and then had to break off to help unload the Malaysian planes that had just arrived. I talked to the Malaysians about getting the people some water, and they agreed to help, but they were taking their own sweet time about it. They came up with a plan to provide biscuits for the people, but it took them fully an hour to figure out that they had not brought any water in any of the pallets they had brought. At that point I decided to take matters into my own hands. I talked to the young US Marine Sergeant who was in charge of the forklift operators, since he knew where all the supply pallets that came through the camp went and had a solid idea what was on each one. I tell you what, that was a good kid. He knew right where to find a mostly used pallet of water, and he sent his forklift operator to go get it.

I talked to Gigi and explained that water was coming, but that we could not have people charging out onto the tarmac when it arrived. I needed her to come up with a system for distributing it in an organized manner, so that everyone can get some water, all the way to the back of the room. She said she would handle it, and she did. It was a thing of beauty. After standing in the sun all day, most with no water of their own, they passed the jugs all the way to the back first, disbursing them through the crowd before anyone took any water. Then each person took one of the gallon jugs, took what he needed for himself or his family, and passed it to his neighbors.

The Malaysian planes did not take anyone. When the two American planes arrived we tried to get permission to try to load some people, but it was denied. The camp commander still felt it was too dangerous. I passed the word to the civilian volunteers and they passed it to their people, that everyone should just get some sleep. I cut a deal with the Malaysians to get them some food, and they assured me they would get it very soon. I went to sleep.

When I got back at about 6:00 in the morning, Gigi and the other volunteers were gone. I don’t know where they went, and I never saw them again, but I am grateful for their help. We could not have gotten that crowd under control without them. Only one remained. The first person to greet me was the tiny volunteer in the red cross shirt, with the words, “Sir, these people still have not gotten any food.” I told her that the planes were going to start coming in a few hours and then I bullied, coaxed and coerced the Malaysians until they got food.

All the rest of the day I was running back and forth, back and forth across the flight line, trying to find Americans and other ex-pats, triaging the sick, wounded and elderly who wanted to get priority on flights, arranging people in order to get on airplanes. Every time I ran past her and her group I just saw more and more evidence of her awesomeness. She pulled some of the older people and some ladies with breastfeeding infants out of the crowd and constructed a little awning for them to sit under. She asked me to take her family out on the next plane because her sister’s baby was vomiting, but she assured me that she would stay behind to help organize people. Sure enough, that is exactly what she did. I put her family in the priority lane, and they were on the first plane out. She put together the groups who would board the plane and sent them up by line of ten when I asked her to.

The craziest rain I have ever seen hit without warning, sometime around mid-morning. It was so thick you could not see the planes on the tarmac. She simply stuck her purse (which was her only luggage) under her shirt and kept working.

After the rain she made a deal with the parents in the crowd. If they agreed to stay behind the gate and wait patiently she would let the kids get out on the open cement where they could have some fresh air and room to stretch their legs. Have you ever seen a group of forty or fifty children sitting cross-legged in rows of ten, smiling and happy, just because they can breathe freely? Sitting in one spot and not moving, kept in check by just one tiny woman they have never met before in their lives?

As the day wore on it became obvious that she had taken those people to heart, literally. They were her family and she took responsibility for them with all her might. Every group she sent out to get on the airplane was a victory for her and somehow she made it a victory for all of them. They were no longer fighting for their own survival. They had become a family. I don’t know how she did it. She just did.

About 5:30 PM, just as the sun was going down, she had another group of 40 people all set out in front of her gates, squatting in rows of ten, waiting for their turn to board the C-130 that was idling on the tarmac. Suddenly it happened again. The people at the main gate panicked, broke through, pushed past the police and flooded the tarmac. They completely swept past her and her group, blocking them off from the airplane. I was moving in trying to find some police to help me restore order, and she came rushing out to me with tears in her eyes. “Sir!” she cried. “Sir! These people!”

It was as if that was all she could say. She eyed the huge crowd spread out between her people and the airplane they had been waiting for for days and she looked on the verge of breaking down. Looking behind her I could see her people still waiting, squatting in rows of ten, frightened looks on their faces, but still waiting patiently, trusting her to get them out.

I yelled in her ear. “I know. I am sorry but there is nothing I can do about that. There are too many of them now.”

She shook her head in desperation. “Sir, my families?”

“Marina, there is nothing more you can do tonight. I need you to find a safe place to rest for the night. We probably won’t be loading any more planes, but you have been going all day and you need some rest. I will try to find you later, and make sure these people get food and water.”

She looked at me with a wry, half amused look on her face. “My name is Marilee,” she informed me.

Well don’t I feel like a doofus!

She fell back to her people and the crowd surged around her, and I lost track of her. For the next four hours we were all busy trying to regain control and impose some sort of order on the loading process. By the time I was able to look for her and her people again the whole area was hopelessly crowded and finding one short lady in that whole crowd was impossible. I simply had to pray that she was all right and leave her to her own devices.

That was the night we finally cracked the code and figured out how to load people at night without losing control of them. There were some scary moments, but it went really well. It was almost 1:00 AM before I got to bed, and then I was up again by 5:00. I had some food and did some work around our camp, cleaning up trash, reorganizing the makeshift latrine (Oh, the glamorous life of an SF Medic!). About 6:00 AM someone came to get me to tell me there was a local woman looking for me.

Sure enough it was Marilee. She was wearing a different outfit because she had gotten the police to give her a place to stay for the night and they had lent her some sweats to replace her old clothes. She thanked me for getting so many people out last night, and asked if more planes were coming in today. I said there were and told her that she was going to be on the first one. “Go back to the flight line, and walk about a hundred yards past where you were yesterday and you will see a gate marked arrivals. That is the American passport line. You are going to be in that line.”

“What if they don’t let me?” she asked.

“Tell them Sergeant Kraeger sent you,” I told her. “I will be along in an hour or so to make sure you get in that line.”

She thanked me and headed back to the airfield.

I headed back there about an hour later, but to my surprise, before I got to the American line I saw her standing at the same spot she had been standing yesterday, with a familiar looking group of 40 people seated in rows of ten around her.

“Marilee,” I said, “I told you I could get you out in the American line? What are you doing here?”

“Sir,” she said, “I found these families.” She gestured to the people waiting expectantly behind her. “They are the ones from yesterday. Can I stay and make sure they get out?”

I tell you, my jaw nearly hit the concrete. I don’t know if I have ever felt more humbled in my entire life. Here she was after a full day and a half of taking responsibility for the well-being of strangers she had never met before, coaxing them, encouraging them, bossing them, caring about them. Now she had an opportunity to get out, free and clear. She had earned it, as far as I was concerned, but she was willing to give it up, just to stay with the people that she had adopted.

There and then I vowed to myself that she and her whole group would be on the next flight if there was anything I could do about it. I grabbed up the Marine Sergeant who was now running the operation and introduced him to her and told him, “I don’t care what it takes, this woman and this whole group with her get on the next flight. I don’t care who is in the American line. She takes priority.”

That’s what happened. I was transitioning to other missions, but I took a break to come back to the flight line when the next American C-130 landed, to make sure she got on. That was the only time she almost broke. When we loaded the first group of twenty, she was left behind with the second group and a look of panic crossed her face. She started to argue with the police, telling him that she had been promised, she was with that group. When I came over to reassure her she was staring desperately at the plane and she said, “Sir, I cannot do this another day.”

“You won’t have to,” I promised. “You will be on that plane.”

The crew chief signaled, they sent the next group, and she boarded with the last of her people.

It was strange. At one point the day prior she had said to me in bewilderment, “I am not this kind of person. I don’t like to speak up to people. I do not know how I have the nerve to do this. I don’t know why they do what I tell them to. I am a nobody.”

I wish I had had time to explain that I feel the same way. Most effective leaders do. Deep down inside we are all faking it, pretending we know what we are doing, bewildered and intimidated by the weight of expectation and trust placed on us, wondering how the hell we ended up here. Why me? Why here? Why this job? Why not someone more dynamic, someone better trained, someone more confident?

I did not have time for that. All I had time to say was, “You care about them. People follow people who care.”

Friday, November 22, 2013

Tacloban Part II

I got an incredible opportunity recently to go to the typhoon disaster zone in the Philippines to help with relief efforts. The next few posts are going to be a series, things I wrote to kind of decompress after returning to my regular mission.

For much of the time I spent there we were working to get the airfield organized, and to get people loaded onto military airplanes for evacuation.

At one point we had a crowd of 500 people attempt to rush the airplane. They had been standing in line all day without food or water, some for two days, and night was falling. The prospect of staying there through the night was just too much and they pushed through the gates, pushed past the policemen and surged forward in a human wave across the tarmac, straight towards the front of a C-130 with engines running. We stopped them, and managed to convince them all to move back and crowd into a little room that had once been a hangar (we could not have done that without volunteers from the crowd helping us, lead by a short bossy Filipina banker named Gigi, but that is a different story) and we closed a gate in front of them.

The next two planes to land were Malaysian. One landed right in front of this crowd of desperate people, the other in the second parking spot, about two hundred meters to the right. The officers and crew got out, not even bothering to unload their relief supplies, or even open the ramp. Instead they all rushed to the front of the airplane to take pictures of the refugees. Then they took pictures of themselves posing in front of the refugees, throwing up the thumbs up, the “rock-on” sign, peace signs. They brought news reporters with them who soliloquized with a background of starving desperate people, while the officers, crew and humanitarian workers chatted among themselves.

I was pretty close to running over like a crazy man, tearing the cameras out of their hands, and punching all those fat, self-satisfied grins off all of those uncaring faces. I didn’t. I smiled from ear to ear with the biggest fake grin I could manage and I went up to the captain of one of the planes. “Hey,” I said, after I introduced myself, “I don’t suppose you would be willing to fly some of these refugees to Manila on your way out, would you?” Casually, you know? Like, “Hey, mind if I hitch a ride down to the drug store, if you happen to be going in that general direction?”

“No, we cannot do that. We are flying back to Kuala Lampur.”

“Okay, well, maybe you can help me a little bit here? Like, how much of a detour would it be just to stop by Manila on the way?”

“Oh no, we cannot do that. We are due back very soon.”

“Okay, fair enough. But do you happen to have food on that airplane? I could really use some food for these people.”

“You would have to talk to one of the volunteers. They are in charge of that.”

So I did. I talked to one volunteer, and then another, and then another. The guy who was technically in charge of the goods was worthless, assuring me over and over that he would certainly get some food for the refugees, but too busy getting his photo taken with them in the background to follow through. The second guy said he would do it, no problem. They had boxes of family meals with biscuits in them, but they would have to take all the biscuits out. Okay, that makes sense, they don’t have cooking supplies right now, so biscuits are probably best.

But before they could hand out anything, or even open a single box, they brought out a bag of poster sized stickers and proceeded to stick one on every available side of every available box that came off that plane. The stickers has the Malaysian flag, the Malaysian president, some kind of sunset in the background and some words about the Malaysian people’s relief operation for the victims of the typhoon. Seriously? You cannot give out food until you have plastered stickers on the side of the box, which it is too dark to see, and which we are going to throw away anyway?

1:00 AM rolled around and another American C-130 rolled in, but the camp commander told use we could not load any people on it because he was afraid of them rushing the plane in the dark and getting cut up in the propellers. I had to explain this to the crowd through my civilian interpreters, and explain why there was still no food. I scrounged up an unclaimed pallet of water and distributed that. About twenty gallon sized jugs were passed around that crowd because I couldn’t find individual bottles, and the people sat or stood calmly in rows, filling their own bottles, offering the jugs to the people around them, passing them around that cramped, dark, smelly, crowded structure until every single person had quenched their thirst. There was not even one single argument or voice raised in anger. God bless them.

And still the Malaysians dithered. They had begun opening their boxes and removing individual packets of biscuits and placing them on a smaller pallet, but they were taking their sweet time about it. At 2:00 or 3:00 AM they assured me that they were almost ready and then they would take them over and distribute them. I had been going for 20 hours already so I showed them where the crowd was and introduced them to the civilians who had stepped up to take charge, and they assured us that it would be very soon. I went back to the tent and went to bed. I was up at 5:30 and back to the flight line by 6:00. The first thing the volunteer said to me when I arrived was, “We still have not gotten any food.”

I wanted to take that smiling, simpering, smirking “relief worker” by the throat and squeeze until his eyes popped out of his head. I wanted to hold him in front of that crowd of people and wave his bulging eyes in front of them and yell, “Look at them! They are hungry. They are starving! You have had that pallet of food sitting over there for hours and you haven’t distributed it why? Because it was still dark and you cannot distribute food until the sun is up and it is light enough for your cameras to see you doing it. If you don’t get pictures to make you look good back home, then what was the point?”

I didn’t. I am trained to smile, and be diplomatic, not burn my bridges. I needed him, he didn’t need me, and who knows what favors I might need from him later. What kind of international stir would that have made? Besides, it would not have fed my people. It would have done nothing more than make me feel better for a few seconds.

I went over and found him, congratulated him on having pulled together so many biscuits so quickly (that stuck in my throat like swallowing puke) and suggested that maybe if he was ready to get his media people going, we could deliver them now? Because these people really are very hungry. They have been without food for at least 24 hours by now. Then I physically bent down and grabbed one corner of the pallet and lifted it slightly. “This is light enough we should be able to carry it with four people.” He and two of his people had no choice but to grab the other three corners and I physically led them to the front of the crowd and set it down in front of them. The Malaysians jetted off to look for their cameras.

I explained the situation to the Filipina civilian who was the crowd’s spokesperson and she rolled her eyes, but she was a good sport about it. The whole crowd was. They were far more patient than I was, and I wasn’t the one starving.

Eventually they did get fed, just in time to stand in the sun, heat, rain and wind all over again for another full day, in the hopes of getting out of that place.

He just could not see what was right in front of his face. Punching him would not have helped that.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Tacloban, Part I

--> I got an incredible opportunity recently to go to the typhoon disaster zone in the Philippines to help with relief efforts. The next few posts are going to be a series, things I wrote to kind of decompress after returning to my regular mission.

I saw a thing on the news today about the new Playstation 4 that just came out and how so many people are mad because of the glitches in the system (it was probably designed by the same people who designed Obamacare). I remember previous news bulletins about the gaming console when it was coming out in stores, and how people were waiting outside the stores hundreds deep, police had to be called in to keep order, riots happened, people got trampled on. Wasn’t it just a few years ago on black Friday a person got trampled to death in the mad rush through the door of a store?

Compare that to the people waiting on the tarmac of Tacloban Airport after the typhoon. There were literally thousands of them, most of whom had lost houses, family, possessions, and were without food or water. The temperature was in the 100’s and ranging between 80 and 90 percent humidity. Torrential showers tore through every couple of hours or so, and these people had no shelter other than umbrellas for the lucky ones, scraps of cardboard, bits of plastic bag, mom’s shirt, whatever they could get their hands on.
All of these scared, desperate people who had just lost everything. Did they trample anyone down? No. Not one person was directly injured by the crowd. Sure there were injuries from dehydration, hunger and sun exposure, but no one got trampled, or beaten down.
I remember one group of about 500 that I worked with for a day and a half, or thereabouts, before I could get them all on planes. During one plane loading I told them I could only take 40 people, but they pushed and shoved and squeezed so I ended up loading at least 60. There was supposed to be a group of 40 from another crowd loading after them, but they only got about 20 on the plane because half of their spots had been taken up by the first group.
After that I talked to one of the police who was helping direct that crowd and gave him a message to pass on. I said, “Everyone out here has been waiting and waiting for an airplane. Do you see that group over there? Half of them had to be turned away because we couldn’t wait our turn over here. I know you all want to get out now, but when I see healthy, strong grown men pushing little old ladies and women with babies out of the way to get on an airplane, that is just not right. That is wrong.” I told him to relay that to the crowd while I went to prepare the next group for the next airplane. He did, and I never had another problem with that crowd.
Do you think that appeal would have met with similar success directed at a black Friday crowd?
I don’t.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Paradise Refused

I saw two young people wandering rich gray streets
Comely, well-fashioned with boredom in their hearts.
They met each other and had some empty chat
Before making love. Then, realizing they were naked,
They stitched together fig leaves into masks
To cover up their faces. By common agreement
They went their separate ways to hide, for he
Had heard the voice of God, calling from her sky blue eyes.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Old People Are More...

My two favorite patient populations to work with have always been old people and children. Of course I have always loved interacting with kids, even when I was one myself. In some respects I still am one. It keeps me sane.

I was surprised when I started working with old people in my medical rotations to find that I really liked them. Perhaps they appeal to me because of their extreme vulnerability, which in America is often pretty great and is getting worse. Children are almost never left unprotected in the healthcare system. Old people very often are. If I can interact with an old person who feels abandoned, unvalued and unloved, and just for a few minutes or an hour or so I can listen to their story and let them know that they are still worth my time and patience, I like to think that I am fighting back against the hatred that society has for the ones who no longer make money.

But vulnerability is not the only reason they appeal to me. Underneath the vulnerability I see something else, which I am not sure how to describe. The only word I can think of is "rootedness." They are not less than the young patients, they are more. Old people have already become. I am explaining this very badly.

My fiancee and I agree that in general there are two kinds of old patients. There are terrible old patients and there are awesome old patients. There are no average old patients. (This is not including patients with dementia or Alzheimers or some other primary mind altering condition. They are a different story altogether.)

Once in the ER, on the exact same day on opposite sides of the hall I had two patients, both older gentleman, one in his late 60's the other in his early 80's. One had come in for a fall in his garage, and spent his whole visit complaining about how much pain he was in, and how terrible the service was, and how he had to tell his story so many times, all the while explaining how tough he was and what a high pain tolerance he had. I was examining him and he winced and screamed like I was stabbing him every time he saw me come near where the injuries were.

The other gentleman, the older one, had cut his leg with a chain saw a week prior and had calmly driven in to the hospital and gotten it stitched up (bad call on the part of whoever stitched it). Now it was closed, but there was a huge, angry, red abscess cooking in the wound pocket which had not been allowed to heal from the bottom up as it should. His whole front thigh was in pain, but he was sitting upright, quiet, patient, chatting and telling stories of his exploits and the strange things he saw back in the War. We squeezed every drop of pus out of that wound by force and then mashed on it until there was not one little pocket left undisturbed. He turned a few shades paler (he was a black gentleman) but then he looked at the huge glob of pus and clot we had expressed and jokingly asked whether he should give it a name.

Old patients are not less of anything than their younger counterparts. They are always more. They are either courageous beyond belief, or whiny beyond belief. They are either interesting in ways that no younger person could ever be, or incredibly dull. They are either utterly loving and self-giving, or they are exasperatingly selfish. The elderly gentleman with no teeth, rheumy eyes and unsteady feet is still more courteous and gentlemanly (and charming, my fiancee would say) than any suave, cultured man of the world. The dirty old man is more lecherous than any horny teenager would ever dare to be. That peaceful old lady with the curly white perm is more completely unselfish in her every thought than I have ever been at my most heroic. That other lady in room three is more vocally and rudely inconsiderate than I have been since I was a baby.

Perhaps my fiancee and I have this perspective because we see them under stress. The stress may reveal traits that do not show in day-to-day life. However, I think there is another reason. I think that old people live in extremes like that because they have spent their whole lives becoming that thing or the other. They have either been practicing strength and courage and courtesy and become very good at it, or they have been practicing weakness, manipulation and whining their whole lives and have gotten very good at that.

Whichever the case, it does not change how I treat them. If anything, I have to put more effort into the whiny patients. I don't know their whole life story (although I probably will if I don't watch out) and I don't know what they have been through. I don't know what they are afraid of. They probably don't know what they are afraid of, and if they have not faced up to it in the last 70 years or so, odds are they won't do it in the time they have left. I pray that they do, though. Even at the end of our lives, all of us are still becoming. Right up until the very end, change is still possible.

At any rate, it makes me take a good hard look at my life. I ask myself, what kind of old person am I becoming? Am I becoming a holy terror? Or am I becoming that awesome old dude who can crack jokes while getting an abscess drained without anesthetic? It is worth thinking about.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Cuteness in the Morning

One thing you have to love about the Philippines: it is approximately 85% Catholic. 500 yards from the hotel I stayed in last night is a Catholic Parish, with Mass offered daily at 6:00 AM and 5:30 PM. That really is the standard, in my opinion. At least in every town there should be the option of a couple of early morning Masses, and a couple of evening Masses, so that everyone gets the chance to go to Mass, regardless of work schedule. To have both at the same parish is above and beyond, and probably only possible because it is run by the Redemptorists and so there are at least half a dozen priests on campus at any given time.

So this morning, after waking up and chatting with my fiancee for a few minutes, I did my workout (just yoga, since I am still recovering from my last injury), and I headed over for daily Mass. The place was full! Twenty minutes before Mass even started the place was pretty well filled, mostly with older folks, retirees and such, all sitting or kneeling in absolute silence. (So far I have had mixed experiences with kneeling in Philippino churches. The pews and kneelers are: 1) not affixed to the floor by any means whatsoever, and 2) designed for people half my size. This means that unless I kneel upright and absolutely still, they tend to slide, and that is just rude, re-arranging the furniture in Church, like a big gringo bull in a china shop.)

Philippinos love to sing. A Hawaiian friend of mine once remarked, "Why do all Philippinos think they can sing?" in reference to Manny Pacquiao's music debut, an album in which he sings five different remixes of "Sometimes when we Touch"... and nothing else. But I digress.

At any rate, in Philippino parishes, unlike most American parishes, everyone sings. They sing loud and they sing like they mean it. The hymns are, for the most part, no better than the ones I hear in the states, but they actually get into them which makes all the difference.

It is amazing! What love Jesus has for us! He makes Himself available to us every day, every single day, if we only make just the tiniest effort to open ourselves to Him. And there at Mass, surrounded by old, frail, wrinkly, eccentric saints, I felt humbled. Unworthy. It is good to feel unworthy because it allows me to appreciate more deeply the truth of the mercy I have been given.

After Mass I went back to the hotel for free breakfast. There was an old man outside the church as I left it, in dirty clothes. He made eye contact with me, and said, "Hey!" and made a move like he was going to come closer, but then stopped and changed his mind. I looked him in the eye, smiled and waved (smiling at people is pretty much standard around here) and half hesitated. Was he going to beg? Try to sell something? I didn't pause long enough to find out, and I think he didn't approach me because I didn't pause. Ironic. Less than ten minutes after receiving Jesus in the Eucharist, I walked right by Him without giving Him the time to see what He wanted. If that old man is there tomorrow I will stop and say Hi and talk to Him. After all, Jesus is giving me free breakfast. Why can't I pay it forward if that's what the old man wants?

In the hotel lobby the tables were all set immaculately, as if they had been set out by ruler. There was a buffet set up with such breakfast staples as fish, beef stroganoff, garlic rice (and when the sign says "garlic rice" well, you better expect some Garlic! in that rice.) There is a chef on duty who cooks omelets and pancakes to order, and a smaller buffet of more typical American breakfast foods. I grabbed a little of this and a little of that, and some assorted sliced fruit and a mango "banna cata" which was like a yogurt pudding with mango jelly on top. Let me tell you, that was delicious!

The lobby was full of guests getting ready to go about their days. One group in particular caught my eye as I was getting my food. It was an American or European businessman with a beard, older, probably in his late fifties. Sitting next to him was a Philippina woman, probably in her late thirties or early forties, (it is hard to tell with Asians) and they were holding hands and laughing and whispering to each other like middle school sweethearts. Something about their body language said that they don't see each other often, or hadn't seen each other in a long time, or weren't going to see each other for a long time. It is a body language I have become very familiar with.

What I didn't see until I sat down was that they were not alone. They had a little girl sitting across the table from them, but I hadn't been able to see her before because her head wasn't tall enough to poke up over the back of the chair. There she was, a teeny-tiny little girl with big dark eyes, taking in everything around her, surrounded by opulence, immaculate place settings, fancy white china and silverware, just sitting there in her pajamas, her feet dangling miles from the floor. In her lap there was a fancy white china bowl filled with dry cheerios. She would eat them one at a time, picking them up delicately with a tiny thumb and forefinger, while gazing around her and watching everything.

I do not know their story. It might be a very good story or a very bad story. But looking at the little girl I felt like I was glimpsing something, a beginning of something. Right now, as I watch, she is being shaped into the adult that she will become someday. Whether that is a good shape or a bad shape, I cannot tell. I only know that I loved them, all three of them, and I wished them the best blessings God could grant them. May He guide and protect them and draw them to Him. May they know how much He loves them. I can think of no greater gift to offer than that prayer.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Getting Old

When I am deployed I always have time to work out. Whereas in the states I always have more important things to do, and physical fitness is relegated to whenever I can make the time, on deployment there are long periods of time where there is literally nothing to do except work out. Then of course there are the deployments where there is no time at all, but that is a different story.

So thursday morning I did a solid sprint workout, trying to get my run time back down to the sub 6:30 mile range. I was feeling pretty good, but I had deadlifted the night before. Not necessarily the wisest thing ever, to jump straight into two-a-days and to sprint the morning after a deadlift routine. Sure enough, I pulled a muscle.

Not a large muscle, like a hamstring or a quad or anything like that. No, I pulled a very small, almost inconsequential muscle in my lower abdomen, right in the flex of my hip. It doesn't hurt very bad except when I do one very specific movement, which is try to bring my left leg from behind me underneath my body to in front of me. Given that I am a biped who gets around by walking, however, I do this with an astonishing degree of regularity, i.e. every step. As long as I am just walking it is fine, because I don't let my leg go that far behind me, but even a single step of running hurts like the proverbial Dickens.

So there you have it, just one tiny little pulled muscle. No big deal, right? When I was 19 I would have taken a weekend off, come at it hard on monday and been fine. Now, at a few months shy of 29, I am having to be wise, unfortunately. I have to cut back not just the intensity of my workouts, but even the style. It is only a small muscle, a small injury, but you use that muscle for virtually every exercise that involves tensing up your core (which is pretty much every exercise worth doing). More importantly, a weakening of that muscle leads to an increased risk of hernia, which I do not need right now.

So there I was tonight, in the gym, spending an hour working just biceps, triceps and forearms. I have not done an arm workout in years. I despise isolation exercises, ones that only use a single joint, or pair of joints. I eschew the body building notion that every muscle needs to be trained independently and sculpted to the max. That is vanity and a waste of time. I don't have time for that. When I go to work out I am focused on one thing, and one thing only, and that is increasing my work capacity. Sometimes that means I practice martial arts, sometimes I practice moving my own body, sometimes I practice moving other heavy things, but I despise workouts that are focused on cosmetics. My goal is function, healthy body mechanics, and the ability to do useful things.

Unfortunately, all of those heavy, multi joint lifts or dynamic body movements or martial arts techniques involve the core, which means they stress that particular muscle, which means they retard healing, so there I was, curling.

Then, to make matters worse a buddy that I sometimes lift with came in. He is a big guy. Huge. He proceeds to start a leg series, squatting and leg pressing. I really wanted to get rid of the curl bar and the cables and all that girly stuff and throw a bar across my back, but I refrained. I did not jump into the squat workout.

It seems I have invested my pride in the kind of workout I do. Every bit as foolish as the "beach muscle" lifters that I presume to despise, I have taken pride in not being a "beach muscle" lifter. So when beach muscle lifts are all I can safely do, it irks me. It stings my pride. Therefore, it is probably good for me. I need the humility of realizing that even functional fitness is not my goal, and therefore needs to be surrendered. God had other plans, and therefore I must cease my grumbling, my superiority complexing and my feeling sorry for myself. It is an opportunity to remind myself that I am mortal, strength is fleeting, and I will grow weak and die someday. This is my first acute sports injury, at 28 years old. I am doing really well so far, but it is all down hill from here, and I need to be detached from my physical abilities, because God is going to take all of them away eventually, once they have served their purpose. Let them go. He is the only strength that matters.

His pleasure is not in the strength of the horse,
    nor his delight in the legs of the warrior;
the Lord delights in those who fear him,
    who put their hope in his unfailing love. Psalm 147:10-11