Sunday, April 29, 2012

The coolest mission ever?

Chief Fowler doing the instructor thing at the Defense Information School.

The thing about school is we always remember certain teachers.   From 1st grade to bachelor's degree, it's the people with personality that stand out.  At DINFOS, Chief Chris Fowler taught a Multimedia course that included Illustrator, Flash, and Power Point.  He had an easygoing way that made us immediately like him.

Chief's tour at DINFOS is over, but he's moved on to something even cooler.  He and other MCs are on board USNS Mercy, and are about to be heroes to the world.  It's called Pacific Partnership 2012, and and this is the official mission:

Pacific Partnership 2012 will deliver humanitarian civil assistance and conduct environmental sustainability missions from USNS Mercy to the nations of Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam and Cambodia.

They're about to leave San Diego.  Head over to the blog and watch the good guys in action.

Pacific Partnership blog

On a side note, Chief and I have been playing email chess, and he just snapped an ugly losing streak.  Congrats, great way to start a deployment!


I should start by saying that I deploy in two days and should really finish packing. So there’s that, but anyway, after DINFOS I was moved to San Diego to join the team at the Navy Public Affairs Support Element West. At the moment, I am temporarily assigned to the staff of Destroyer Squadron Seven working aboard the hospital ship USNS Mercy for Pacific Partnership 2012.

 Read about PP12 here.

One of the focal points of PP12’s public affairs mission is to leverage social media to tell the story.
Back at DINFOS, I would introduce the mulitmedia portion of the MC “A” School by asking students to raise their hands if they still read newspapers – the printed kind that come wrapped in a clear plastic bag – and usually three or four students would raise their hands. Then I would ask the students who used the internet to get their news to raise their hands. That is when the other 20 students would raise their hands.

My point was to illustrate how multimedia was the convergence of technology, print journalism, photography, video and graphics – and to focus only on one discipline was like trying to play chess by only moving your bishops – it probably wouldn’t end well.

Fast forward one year and Facebook, Twitter and Wordpress (to name a few) are being used reach a global audience – and even though we haven’t deployed yet – we are being read by people on EVERY continent with the exception of Antarctica and Africa. 

One of the things we are doing differently is that we are creating a “blogumentary” of the mission. It will be like a book that writes itself. Every Wednesday will feature a different author telling their part of the story, told from their point of view at that point in time.  And here’s the thing, the authors can write what they want. The content is edited for readability only – but the words will be those of the authors, and I don’t know what they are going to say.

The idea is that when the mission is complete,
 the whole thing will be like a book – a book written 
first person by the people living the mission. 

Comingled with the personality profiles are daily videos, pictures and updates – that way there is something new to see each day.  And even though we haven’t pulled away from the pier yet, we have already exceeded the largest number views for a single day since the blog has been online – and the blog has been online for about three years. Not only that, we’ve already exceeded that number twice.

That being said, we deploy in two days. When Pacific Partnerhip 2012 pulls away from the pier aboard USNS Mercy, approximately 800 people (we will pick up many of them in Hawaii and Guam), including doctors, nurses, soldiers, Sailors, airmen and civilians will have learn to work and live aboard a ship most of us have never been aboard before. We will visit countries far from everything and everyone we have ever known.

Six rock star MCs will be working long hours under some very difficult conditions to tell the story of the largest humanitarian and capacity building mission in the Asia-Pacific region.  And it will be awesome.  The MCs are key – without them – this thing wouldn’t work.  They help identify authors,  conduct pre-interviews to help the authors focus their narrative and shoot all the environmental portraits.  I also plan on incorporating video.   

The PP12 MCs are: MC2 Kristopher Regan (CHINFO JSOY sea) & LPO; MC2 Roadell Hickmon; MC3 Stephen Votaw, MC3 Mike Feddersen, MC3 Laurie Dexter and MC3 Clay Whaley. 

- MCC (SW/AW) Chris Fowler
Pacific Partnership Public Affairs LCPO

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

I am the law

The weather's warm, and the beaches are beckoning.  But our time in San Diego comes with an added responsibility.  While USS Nimitz is docked at Naval Station North Island, some of us must stand watch as Shore Patrol.  Base security provides training and fancy SP armbands.  Sailors partying on base provide entertainment.

My job is to walk a small area, accompanied by a 2nd and 1st class, as extra eyes and ears for the real security folks.  Our presence reminds the young'uns to take it easy.

Sent from my Samsung Epic™ 4G

Thursday, April 19, 2012

All washed up

It's all changing.  Again.  The Nimitz has taken to the sea to begin to reclaim her status as Beast of the Pacific.  I fell off the fantail and am now stranded on an island.  With a friend.  And a phone signal.   Actually we're docked at Naval Station North Island, across the bridge from San Diego.

I cannot describe to you how much I love palm trees.  And the beach.

Sent from my Samsung Epic™ 4G

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Parade of Champions - CHINFO Merit Awards & the Visual Information Awards Program

There are two events that create a significant buzz in the world of military journalists.  They are the Chief of Information (CHINFO) Merit Awards and the Visual Information Awards Program (VIAP).

The CHINFO Merit Awards are Navy-wide, and VIAP is military-wide.  I contacted a bunch of the winners and placers, and got a great response.  Each person was asked three questions.

1.  What did it mean to you to win?
2.  What is the most challenging thing about the MC rate?
3.  What advice do you have for those who want to create superior product?

To compete in categories like Outstanding New Navy Broadcaster, Print Journalist of the Year, or Military Videographer of the Year, the servicemember submits several pieces that they feel are their best.
These men and women are creating some excellent work, and they've got great insight into how they're doing it.  Enjoy the feast. 


 MC3 Nichelle Whitfield-Bishop, USS Nimitz
- 2nd place in Commentary, “Who You Callin’ Small?”

   To be completely honest, I was surprised my commentary was selected. I'm not just playing the modesty card on that one. I'm happy I placed though, it was the one piece I'd written all year that I was both attached to and proud of at completion.

I'm proud that I was able to expose a vulnerability
 and receive a positive reception from it. 

I spoke from the heart, with the expectation that only a few people would listen and care, and it grew a bit bigger than I imagined it would.

The most challenging thing about being a Mass Communication Specialist is the constant nonstop flow of our job. It never stops. There are always stories to find, research, write, edit, revise, and publish. There are always moments to capture, tours to give and places you need to be. The projects never stop. There are always improvements being made. Three "subcategories" for our overall job make the 10 Ten most stressful jobs list. It can all be a bit overwhelming if you are unprepared.
My advice to anyone and everyone would be to get organized and stay organized. Remove that stress so you can put your thoughts and energy to other things. More creative things. Fun things.

 "Who You Callin' Small"

MC3 Ryan Seelbach, American Forces Network Rota
1st place in Television Newsbreak, "Artwork"

 A TV newsbreak is a one or two-minute long story about a base function, exercise or event.  I was kind of surprised to find out that I won at all, let alone first prize. I was pretty excited though. I had done so many newsbreaks/spots over the last year that when we sent the CHINFO package off, I put in what I thought was my best work, not what I thought would win.

The most challenging thing about being an MC is that broadcasting and everything else we do is so different.

Being here at AFN Rota, and being a radio DJ has nothing to do with print journalism, photography, or really even video. I worked at the base paper for a week since I've been here and I felt like I completely forgot how to write a news story. If I had done the merger, I'd have kept the visual stuff (photo/video/graphic arts) as one rate and the journalism/radio stuff as its own rate. It's just too complicated to go back and fourth between the two.

Good products always have shot variations, well placed natural sound, good-looking interviews (working interviews are some of the best) and tell a great story.


Editor's Note: This is completely unrelated, but I have to mention that Seelbach has a scary sense of direction.  I once watched him guide our driver out of inner Baltimore with his eyes closed. 

MC2 Timothy Walter, USS George H.W. Bush 
 - Outstanding New Writer
- 1st place in Human Interest Feature Article, "Yellow Shirts: One Color, One Rank, One Family"
- 1st place in Series, "77-day Warrior Challenge"

 It was a bit of a shock. I've never felt like I was a gifted writer. And the truth is that on my own I can do nothing. But with God's help, I can do all things. So really the awards just showed me how much my Savior has blessed me in this past year, and I give all the credit to Him.

Look, listen and make the reader feel what you feel.

The most challenging thing about this rate is the diversity of skill sets needed to succeed in any billet. It will remain a challenge for Sailors to become proficient in so many disparate fields of study, each of which requires years to truly master.

My advice is simple: Don't limit yourself to one sense in writing or photography. Capture images that make you feel something. Pretty pictures are just that -- pretty pictures. But if you capture emotion in a graphically appealing way, then you've suceeded. Same with words. Anyone can tell you that seven people were promoted on this day. But how many people can do it in a way that makes you, the reader, feel as if you are in that same room with the same excitement as those newly advanced Sailors? Look, listen and make the reader feel what you feel. That should be the goal.

 “Yellow Shirts: One Color, One Rank, One Family”

“77-day Warrior Challenge”

Editor's Note: MC2 Walter is a nuke convert, and did not attend the Defense Information School.

- Print Journalist of the Year

 Well it’s an honor to be selected as CHINFO’s print journalist of the year for 2011. I truly enjoy my job and try to do the absolute best with every story I tell. I’m extremely thankful that I was considered for the award and am thankful for the support of my leadership and peers throughout my time in the Navy. Also, this is the first time that I’ve ever submitted any of my work for any type of recognition.  

...I’m thankful for networking and look to my Chiefs, mentors and 
fellow MCs to help me out whenever I need it. 
Personally, everything is challenging and is a learning experience. Our rate consists of many different types of jobs and sometimes it can seem overwhelming. For myself, I find it pretty difficult being the only MC for my command, but I’m thankful for networking and look to my Chiefs, mentors and fellow MCs to help me out whenever I need it.
I definitely wouldn’t say that I create superior content, but the best advice I can give to others is do the best you can on everything you do. For writing advice, I’m not the best writer but I try to thoroughly plan out my stories to make sure I know exactly what I’m writing about. Since the audience is what’s important, this helps me understand what information matters to them. For photography, I just try my best to capture moments. Other than that, I trust in my mentors and Chiefs for any assistance I might need. 
MC1 Rosa Van der Loo, American Forces Network Rota
- 1st place in Radio Entertainment Program, "Thanksgiving"
- 2nd place in Radio Spot Production, "Elf Help"

 I was really excited to win. I actually spent the better part of last year really working on radio broadcasting skills, so it was sort of a validation that my over-the-top excitement for producing radio was, in fact, a good thing. To tell you the truth, I was really surprised that I won. We have so many great radio DJs in the military and it's awesome to be included on that list. It's also great that I got to share the spotlight because as you know Rota took home 1st and 2nd place awards in that category.

The most challenging thing about the MC rate is the huge amount of areas that you're meant to be proficient in. The U.S. Navy is the only service that requires one job field to have working knowledge of public relations, event planning, web design, social media, both TV and radio broadcasting, basic journalism, photography, basic newspaper layout and operations, and graphic design. That's a lot to be able to do and it's really a challenge to become that well-rounded of an MC to be comfortable stepping into any role. That said, the U.S. Navy is also the only service that offers training to match what they're asking.

Love what you do and be proud of it, not because it may win an award, but because it's something you love.

Take ownership of it in that way.  Know who your audience is and what will resonate with them best and use that to your advantage.  Prepare, prepare, prepare! Go the extra mile. The more prepared you are to do a great job, the easier it is to make your job great.  No matter what you do - print, broadcast, design, whatever - keep learning more about it. Keep working on perfecting those technical skills. Know what the best sounds like, looks like, and feels like and get constant feedback.

Lastly, don't be afraid to go out there. Way, way, out there. You don't get better without trying (and failing) a few things, so don't be afraid to fail.  That's how we learn.


MC2 Jen Lobao, American Forces Network Naples
- Outstanding New Navy Broadcaster
- 1st place in Radio News Report, "Vice Presidential Visit"
- Honorable Mention in Radio Spot Production, "Loaner Locker"

 It's an honor to be named the 2011 Outstanding New Navy Broadcaster. Last year I primarily worked as a radio broadcaster, but I had some really amazing opportunities in television as well. I am grateful for those opportunities, for the support I received along the way, and for these awards.

...don't be afraid to step out of your comfort zone 
or to think outside of the box.

Being an MC can be challenging because of all the different hats we have to wear: public affairs, photography, broadcasting, graphic design, and more. Learning to be proficient in all aspects of the job may have its challenges, but I think along with that comes exciting and rewarding opportunities.

The advice I have for others is to practice, practice, and practice some more. Also, keep in mind that the amount of prep work you do beforehand can make a significant impact on the outcome of your project. And finally, don't be afraid to step out of your comfort zone or to think outside of the box.

Two of MC2's submissions for Outstanding New Navy Broadcaster:

Food Network
Change of Command


 MC3 Sebastian McCormack - Fleet Combat Camera Group Pacific
 - Honorable Mention in MILPHOG - Combat Documentary

 I basically took a shot that I knew was composed cleanly, but I really didn't think it was anything special. Apparently, the judges thought otherwise.  My Afghanistan deployment has been challenging thus far.  I've had to deal with extreme cold weather and physical hardships during operations.  I've also been put in dangerous situations.  A COMCAM must know when to put his camera down and think of his safety first.

Buckle your seatbelt and stay locked on.

Not everyone will be able to integrate with certain units COMCAM are expected to support.  Special training and a certain level of professionalism are required.  Buckle your seatbelt and stay locked on.  There has to be a balance between being a good soldier and being an MC for a COMCAM to be successful.

Caption: 111212-N-MF277-167- An Afghan National Army commando breaches the door of a building suspected of harboring insurgents during an operation to disrupt a budding improvised explosive device cell in Chak district, Wardak province, Afghanistan, Dec. 12. The ANA commandos conduct counterinsurgency operations throughout Afghanistan to provide stability in the region. (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Sebastian McCormack/RELEASED)

MC2 Andrew Breese, Defense Media Activity
- 2011 Military Videographer of the Year
 - 1st place in MILVID - Field Production, "U.S. Navy Drill Team"
- 3rd place in MILVID - Documentary, "Pearl Harbor Final Wishes" 
 -  Honorable Mention in MILPHOG - Multimedia Story-Feature, "What is Pain?"

 First and foremost, I’m very honored and humbled to be selected as the 2011 Military Videographer of the Year. Winning MILVOY validated a lot of changes I made when it came to shooting video. In mid-2009 I decided to switch from standard broadcast cameras to HD DSLR cameras with video capabilities. It’s been a long journey learning the dos and don’ts with DSLR video, but I have become more developed as a Mass Communication Specialist managing both photo and video worlds together within one camera.

“If you don't like change, 
you're going to like irrelevance even less.” 

The most challenging part about being an MC for me was getting the higher ups (E-6 thru O-5) to accept change within our new community. One of my favorite quotes by General Eric Shinseki, retired Chief of Staff, U.S. Army. “If you don't like change, you're going to like irrelevance even less.”

Media has changed so fast in the last few years; from the way we consume it, how it’s produced, who sees it and how it’s repurposed. I’ve spent countless hours fighting with old legacy Chiefs (JO,LI,PH,DM) and PAOs about expanding on our style from the old broadcast formats and venues. The best way I found to combat this problem was (inception) to educate them on the variety of storytelling techniques and media outlets used by professionals today.

I believe many of the same stories in the military are recycled but the art of storytelling continues to reinvent itself. MCs must be innovative; thinking outside the 4:3 box is a key process that will keep the MC rate viable and strong in the future.

My advice to MCs looking to step up their game would be to: surf Vimeo constantly, use a HD-DSLR camera (Canon 5DMKIII or Nikon D800), apply your photography skills to video, find a long-term project for yourself not the military and make storytelling apart of your life not just your job.

It’s also important to branch out by attending workshops like the DC Shootoff, DOD Worldwide Military Photography Workshop and many others.

U.S. Navy Drill Team
Pearl Harbor Final Wishes
SERE Instructors
What is Pain?

MC1 Cote is dead center.

MC1 Brett Cote, Defense Media Activity
- 1st place in MILVID (Documentary), "U.S. Navy Concert Band"

 I was so stoked to win. The Navy Band piece was the only package I entered into the contest, and I definitely wasn’t expecting it to get first place. DINFOS streamed the contest online in real time, so a couple of folks had it on their desk tops in my workspace. When the judges picked my story, my cubicle mate and I did the Top-Gun-need-for-speed-high-five.

Dude, I could go on and on about this rate. In a nutshell, the most challenging thing is staying sharp and staying current. Why is that so hard? Because an MC isn’t a photographer, a writer, a graphic artist, a PA specialist, or a layout designer. A real MC is all of that, and all of those skill sets are evolving really fast these days. Right now the technology is changing so fast, and it takes a lot of work to stay current on any one arm of the MC octopus.

 For example, I’m kind of a video specialist, and right now video technology is like a bucking bronco that I’m just trying to stay on top of. DSLRs changed the game, but they’re still in their infancy. Prosumer 4K cameras and systems seem to be right around the corner. Web delivery methods and codecs are going through a lot of changes, too.

 It’s a lot of work to stay current while growing creatively and taking care of your day-to-day workload. 

Another example of the changing landscape is on the public affairs/public relations front. Social media is so massive. There are a million sites and apps catering to a gazillion demographics. I’m not even going to pretend I know a fraction of what’s going on in the social media realm. I’m holding down facebook (cote brett), twitter (@bpcote1), and instagram (bpcote1), but the rest of it is totally getting away from me right now.

You’ve got to stay hungry to learn, plain and simple. I’ve been doing this for 10 years, I’ve been to Combat Camera, I’ve done a newspaper, I’ve been to Syracuse, I’ve won a few awards, and I still don’t know sh*t. Neither do you. No MC can be sharp at all aspects of the game at all times. If you spend six months becoming an After Effects ninja, then that’s probably six months you’ve spent neglecting some other arm of the octopus.

“Superior product” is a relative term. Not everybody is hungry enough to be MC2s Andrew Breese (, Patrick House (, or Drew Geraci (, but as long as your next project is superior to your last project, then you’re heading in the right direction. So, thanks for giving me this opportunity to run my mouth. I like what you’re doing with the homegrown pro blog. Keep killing it. -bc

The Navy Band

MC3 Glenn Slaughter, USS Nimitz
- Honorable Mention in CHINFO, Outstanding New Navy Broadcaster
- Honorable Mention in CHINFO Television Feature Report, "Midway Memories"
- Honorable Mention in MILVID - Feature Story, "Midway Memories"

 They're calling me the Honorable MC3 Slaughter at work.  How do I feel about all those Honorable Mentions?  I feel GREAT.  I'm serious.  I don't shoot to win awards, but there's a very comforting feeling that comes from all those nods.  It's like you know you're on the right track.

I've been blessed to work under a command that encourages creativity and out-of-the-box thinking.  There are so many amazing things going on in the Nimitz's Media department.  The challenge has been to become a well-rounded MC.  Ever since I can remember, I've shot mostly video, with some creative writing on the side.  In the Navy, we're expected to have a knowledge of much more.  Giant, expensive printers scare me, and photography slaps me around quite often.

Find what you're passionate about and make that the center of your work.  For me, it's people.  Doing a story on dish washers in the scullery may not seem interesting, but the people in that dirty, steamy room each have a unique story.  If your people skills aren't great, work on them.  The key to telling compelling stories is having the ability to make people relax and open up a little.

Midway Memories


 Many thanks to all who took the time to write in and share their wisdom.  Thank you to Senior Chief Trent from USS George H.W. Bush for her help with this story.  The Sailors over there are putting out some great stuff.

Stop by the DINFOS Showcase page to see a list of VIAP winners (it's under March), and the Navy Public Affairs Professional Development page to see a list of CMA winners.

Two more examples from USS George H.W. Bush winners:

MC3 Greg Wilhelmi, 2nd in CHINFO, Personality Feature, “Second Chances”

MC3 Derrik Noack - 3rd in CHINFO, Personality Feature, “From boot camp to the White House"

Operation Tomodachi - An MC's story of disaster and discovery

Bird's eye view of horror:  MC3 Tidd hitching a ride in a Sea Hawk helicopter.

Below photos, unless otherwise noted, are by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Alexander Tidd.  

Stop by  and Reagan's Facebook for full photo information..

On March 11, 2011, a massive earthquake occurred east of the island of Japan.  It would trigger disaster after disaster, in a seemingly endless string of events that took the lives of over 15,000 Japanese citizens.  

Our lives are also made up of events.  Every once in a while one arrives and sets fire to our dull routine, and pushes us further than ever before.  As you read MC3 Tidd's story, think about what you would feel if you were faced with the events that he witnessed.


I met Alex in Bremerton, Washington, when the Ronald Reagan pulled in.  He had that brash, confident vibe going on that, sigh, brought back memories of me at 24.  Except he's way smarter and more self-aware than I was at that age.  

As we put back a few beers at the bar on base, he mentioned he had written a story on his experiences during the disaster in Japan, but had never tried to publish it anywhere.  

I think I can help with that.

HH-60H Sea Hawk helicopters from the Black Knights of Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron 4 prepare to lift off.

 MARCH 15, 2011

Damn, it’s cold, I thought to myself. 

          Petty Officer 2nd Class Christopher Carringer had hauled open the heavy side door of our HH-60H Sea Hawk helicopter as we banked alongside the Japanese waterfront for our first look at the tsunami-ravaged Honshu coast. The icy rush of air came as a shock—the first of many.

          I, like everyone in the helo, was wearing a “dry suit,” a watertight twist on the traditional wetsuit and vitally essential for survival in extremely cold waters. Hammering that point home was a note on the whiteboard in Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron (HS) 4’s ready room aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan. It read:

Water Temp:
     39 degrees (F)

Estimated survival time in water:
     45 minutes with dry suit
     5 minutes otherwise

Fresh snow lined the hillsides of what I was told was the Miyagi Prefecture as we continued up the coast. The small but steep mountain cliffs jutting severely from the ocean briefly reminded me of San Francisco, my hometown, but I shook that thought away as I took in the landscape.  Cruising at a touch over 100 miles per hour about 500 feet off the ocean, the rural countryside would have been beautiful in most any other circumstance. Marring the pristine waterline were all manner of debris—buoys, fishing nets, floating sections of dock that had broken away. 

Small capsized boats broke the surface here and there, but the land was otherwise devoid of human life. 

           Our helicopter was among the first on scene after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami struck northern Japan March 11, 2011. I had been at dinner in one of Ronald Reagan’s galleys when CNN broke the news of the disaster. As more and more of my fellow sailors took notice of the broadcast, silence fell over the room. We were transiting the Pacific on our way to an exercise with the South Korean military, about halfway between Hawaii and our first port-of-call of our 2011 deployment—Busan, Republic of Korea. 

As I watched the murky water wipe away the lives of so many Japanese citizens, I knew right away our plans had just changed.

          Four days later I was strapped into the gunner’s belt of one of the legendary Black Knights of HS-4’s venerable Sea Hawk helicopters, in the company of one of their most experienced air crews. 

          But I wasn’t one of them.

           I was a photojournalist from Ronald Reagan’s Graphics Media department, picked for this assignment because of my swimming qualifications and proven ability on the flight deck of our floating airport.  The previous day, our photo and video guys had been crossed off the flight manifest at the last minute when HS-4’s executive officer rightfully proclaimed that potentially-rescued victims took precedence over us.

           It only took one day to realize they wouldn’t be finding any survivors in those waters.  Now soaring at triple-digit speeds in the freezing cold, I had one thought going through my head:

First these people endure one of the strongest earthquakes in recorded history. The earthquake generates a wall of water 30 feet high in some places that absolutely ravages their coastal towns. All that water sparks the failure of a nuclear powerplant, releasing untold radiation into the atmosphere. 

And now it’s f*cking snowing.

           I was flying a reconnaissance mission with HS-4 one day prior—my first flight with the Black Knights—when chatter picked up over the radio. We were canvassing a designated area for survivors but finding only empty fishing boats, large islands of debris and the occasional drifting house when the pilots of my helo and several others in the area began a distressed conversation I couldn’t fully understand.
The Sea Hawk banked abruptly as we headed for home. Over our Sea Hawk’s circuit, I asked one of the aircrewmen what had happened. 

Evidently, he replied, we had flown through a “radiation cloud” and had to return to the ship immediately.

Once back on the flight deck, we were directed toward one of the ship’s Chemical, Biological and Radiological (CBR) stations. As we disembarked, a team from the ship’s Reactor department (Ronald Reagan is a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier) immediately descended on the Sea Hawk.

Counter-measure washdown on the flight deck.
Inside the CBR station, another Reactor team similarly descended on us. We each were given a thorough scan with a Gieger meter, seeking out hotspots to determine if we could expect a lymphoma-filled future. My flight suit, dry suit and boots were all confiscated and whisked off to God-knows-where but, thankfully, I was given a clean bill of health. 


Now, just one day later, we were cleared to resume our humanitarian mission—albeit with a stiff warning not to stray within 100 nautical miles of the damaged nuclear plant. I was tasked with two roles: collecting intelligence data on potential landing zones and providing media coverage of whatever went on. I shivered through all those layers while tightly grasping my Nikon as we descended down the mountainside toward what was left of a civilization.
I checked and rechecked my gear, making sure I had good batteries and extra memory cards at the ready. I had received all of three weeks training in still photography at the Defense Information School in Fort Meade, Md., several years ago. While DINFOS instructors do their best to instill in their students how to react to uncontrolled action, my real lessons had come from shooting F/A-18 Super Hornets launching off the flight deck at over 200 miles per hour. But the fact of the matter was simple—there’s no way to prepare for a disaster of this magnitude other than through sheer experience.

At 24 years old, I don’t know that I was fully prepared for what I would see. The devastation was near total in the lowlands, with mountains of wreckage where houses once stood—houses a lot like the one I grew up in—surrounded by countless overturned automobiles. Scattered, larger buildings still standing were the rare exception, and even they wouldn’t be habitable again for a long time.
Just as impressive were the boats and ships littering the landscape, washed ashore by the wall of water. My Nikon’s shutter slammed open and closed as fast as my numb hands could fire the trigger, capturing the strangely surreal sight of a thousand-person ferry boat resting atop a three-story building as though God himself had placed it there. Or a large crab boat, balancing precariously on a concrete jetty some 20 feet off the water. The unnatural new homes for these vessels stood in stark contrast to the horror surrounding them.


The Sea Hawk shuddered as it air braked suddenly and pulled into a sharp turn. As we came around, I spotted why we had slowed to a hover.  

Scrawled into the solid rock of a hillside 
were the letters “S.O.S.” 

The aircrewmen searched the airspace for tree limbs and power lines, known affectionately to helicopter crews as “widowmakers,” before shouting the all clear on both sides. We descended toward a small clearing a hundred feet from the rock that would have to do as a makeshift landing zone.


Carringer and Petty Officer 3rd Matt Thomas, the other HS-4 rescue swimmer assigned to this flight, hopped out of the helo first as I followed close behind. No sooner had we cleared the rotor blades chopping over our heads than a light flatbed truck came chugging into the clearing. It came to a halt and two Japanese men and a young boy climbed out of the cab.
Carringer and Thomas approached the three and greeted them in English, but they just shook their heads. Carringer produced a green, laminated notecard with several phrases printed in Japanese and English. Using the card as their guide, the aircrewmen checked off the various needs of this location—food, water, a first-aid kit and other essentials.

Using the translator card.  (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Dylan McCord/Released)

           Providing aid to a disaster of this magnitude was an enormous task. As of yet, USS Ronald Reagan and its air wing were the only real resources on scene. After a few days in the area, C-2A Greyhound cargo planes would constantly be coming and going from the aircraft carrier, packed to the gills with vital supplies for the relief effort. But when we first arrived, we only could give what we already had with us.  Our Sea Hawk was loaded with cases of bottled water and packaged food, which we gladly handed over to the Japanese. But, surprisingly, they didn’t want all of it. 

One of the greatest impressions I would take away from Operation Tomodachi would be the Japanese’s steadfast dedication to taking no more than they felt they might need. 

As the Sea Hawk’s rotors began churning up more and more dust, the aircrewmen jotted down the landing zone’s desired supplies for future missions, then informed me it was time to leave. As I followed Carringer and Thomas back into the helo, I caught one last glimpse of the Japanese citizens beside their truck. 
All three were bowing as we lifted off the deck.

Chief Naval Air Crewman Steven Sinclair hugs a Japanese citizen after tsunami relief efforts at a coastal Japanese city.  (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kevin B. Gray/Released)

Two more days of rescue operations had gone by when I received the call to fly again. This time I’d share a helo with Petty Officer 3rd Class Seth Eslin and Petty Officer 2nd Class Zach Delcorte, using cases of bottled water, boxes of warm clothes and wool blankets for seats in the crowded cabin.
A lot had changed by the third day of Tomodachi. The Black Knights were joined by several helicopter squadrons based off the amphibious command ship USS Blueridge (LCC 19) for delivery runs. F/A-18F Super Hornets from Ronald Reagan were flying low-altitude recon missions, proving constant updates as the situation developed. Coordinating it all was a squadron of E-2C Hawkeyes, the aircraft famous for the 24-foot diameter roto-dome attached to its fuselage, using their high-tech equipment to manage the battlespace by sending precise flights of supplies exactly where they were needed most.

Although the Ronald Reagan Strike Group now had a much better understanding of how to manage the humanitarian effort, circumstances on the ground were growing worse. 

Overturned cars and rubble had effectively rendered many roads impassable to some of the most critical locations, making air support vital to the survival of the refugee centers.
Now one of many helos scouring the Miyagi Prefecture, our mission sounded simple on paper: fly to an assigned LZ, give them what they need, return to Ronald Reagan and do it again.
In reality, however, we had more freedom to act on the fly. That fluidity came into play during our second supply run, when word came from one of the Hawkeyes that a new LZ had been found not far from our current location. Our Sea Hawk banked hard to the right as we set a new course.


Eslin and Delcorte kept a keen eye on the surrounding terrain as we slowly made our way through a narrow valley. Light snow was falling and visibility was unfailingly minimal, as it would be throughout Tomodachi. Occasionally, the guys would spot an infamous widowmaker, sending the helo lurching in one direction or another as they called out the warning. I tried my best to stay out of their way while keeping an eye on my camera gear.
The valley opened up into a large clearing that was strangely divided by a railroad embankment. On the far side was our target LZ; an elementary school set on a hill. The other side, well, the other side was completely f*cked for a solid mile from the ocean to the embankment, which apparently had been enough to stop the flood.

 We came to a soft a landing in the mud of a soccer field outside the school. Delcorte and Eslin had to rush out of the Sea Hawk as a crowd of children and adults came pouring out of the gymnasium, warning them not to come within the rotor wash. Obediently, the Japanese waited just beyond the reach of the blades as Delcore and Eslin started unloading the helo.

Near as we could tell, our supply run 
couldn’t have come a moment too soon. 

The elementary school lay at the foot of the mountainside and opened up toward the railroad embankment. There was absolutely no way in or out by land, meaning this shelter needed everything we had with us.
As Delcorte continued unloading supplies, I followed Eslin toward the school. We were greeted by what I can only guess was a family, an adult male and female and two small children. They spoke broken English, meaning the green notecard would be worth its weight in gold once more.
While Eslin worked with the family on their shelter’s needs, I timidly ventured inside the gymnasium. 

I felt like an intruder, but I also realized that this might be the only photos from inside a shelter. 

The somber eyes of displaced Japanese citizens met mine as I removed my flight helmet and stepped onto the hardwood floor in my muddy boots. I tried not to let my nervousness show in my smile as I bowed to the victims of the terrible tragedy I had witnessed only from high in the air.
Once again I was impressed by the Japanese’s way of handling the situation that had been thrust upon them. Gathered inside the gymnasium around propane heaters were their children and elderly, while every able-bodied man and women helped move and organize the supplies from our helo. Mattresses and blankets covered most of the floor, alongside the few personal possessions they had managed to save. Though somber, their eyes showed realization and appreciation as some returned my bow, while still others shook my hand as I meekly made my way around the room.
After snapping a few photos, I walked outside toward the Sea Hawk. Eslin and Delcorte were unloading the last of the supplies for the locals as I walked past the Sea Hawk. Our exit was fast approaching, but morbid curiosity got the best of me as I walked through the mud toward the railroad embankment. I spotted the road that passed beneath a trestle bridge and headed for a close-up look at what lay on the other side.
It was exactly as we had thought, but that didn’t make it any easier to witness. I stepped through the wreckage, surrounded by literal mountains of demolished businesses, cars buried beneath rubble and houses collapsed upon themselves. I felt the pain of these people in knowing their neighborhood could just have easily been mine in another world.

At once, Eslin appeared behind me, gesturing emphatically that it was time to go. Several children stopped us on the way back to the Sea Hawk to take a picture with them in front of the helo. These kids were managing to find some fun in life despite the horror that had washed over their world. I don’t know that I had ever been so humbled in all my life. I was moved by the incredible display of human perseverance and resolve I had born witness to, both inside the gymnasium-turned-shelter and beyond the wall of the embankment.

           I would fly five missions over the course of USS Ronald Reagan’s involvement with Operation Tomodachi and see many more incredible acts of endurance. The plight of these people was unimaginable, but their resilience was humanity at its finest.

---MC3 Alexander Tidd

Thank you for sharing this personal story with us.  And thank you to all the Sailors that put themselves in harm's way to reach out to the Japanese.

By the way, Tomodachi means friend.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Everyone's a cyclist

Today is my PRT day.  The Physical Readiness Test is conducted twice a year, and ensures Sailors remain in acceptable physical condition.  There's a line building up, though.   Everyone wants to ride the bike for the cardio portion.

Sent from my Samsung Epic™ 4G