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Neighbors Helping Neighbors in Need


09/06/17 12:00 AM

MC3 Geoffrey P. Barham

Chatter and small-talk inside the bus came to a complete stop when Capt. Brad Stallings, Commander, U.S. Fleet Activities Sasebo commanding officer, and Lt. Cmdr. Ryan Annis, CFAS chief staff officer, boarded.
            “Good morning,” said Stallings. “I just wanted to thank every one of you guys for coming out this morning. It really means a lot to not only myself but to our host nation as well. Community service events like this help strengthen our relationship with the Japanese and I’m happy to see so many people willing to volunteer to help our neighbors in the Fukuoka region.”

Over 90 volunteers consisting of active duty service members, civilian employees, family members and Japanese employees gathered outside the Community Education Center onboard CFAS September 1, 2017 to help as part of a disaster relief for a mudslide in Asakura, Japan in the Fukuoka prefecture.

The mudslide occurred as a result of heavy rains on the southern island of Kyushu in Japan July 6, 2017. According to NHK, Japan’s national public broadcasting organization, government officials had recorded landslides at 41 different locations and flooding in 38 resulting in 22 dead.

“Count off!” yelled a voice from the front of the bus. Each member onboard sequentially sounded off a number. The last voice from the back yelled, “42!” With a final confirmation of the number of volunteers onboard, the bus brakes let out a burst of air and was on its way to Asakura with another bus following behind it.

            The buses unloaded in the rural town where the volunteers would split up and be taken to clean up sites via trucks. The damage they had volunteered to help fix was in an outlying area of rice paddies and farms further up a mountainous road. The volunteers were split into two groups. One would dig out a house and remove rubble while the other would reinforce the terrain surrounding a shrine and help cleanup efforts at another house nearby. The groups loaded into the back of pickup trucks and were driven to their respective locations where they would work side by side with locals.

While riding to the cleanup areas, the destruction throughout the region was immediately apparent. Houses were sliced through and cut in half with only a mound of mud to replace the walls that stood before it. Cars were half their normal size with the weight of the dirt caving in roofs and shattering windows. Debris that was once homes protruded through the dirt and posed as a hazard at every turn. An entire valley that was once green with agriculture and natural foliage was now a field of dirt and rubble.

Volunteers were in awe and the duration of the ride up the mountain consisted of constant remarks of the devastation.

“There’s a lot of folks here who have been impacted very badly and suffered a great deal,” said Lt. Cmdr. Thomas Solether, Public Works Officer at CFAS. “I think we all feel humbled seeing the damage and devastation.”

Everyone knew there was copious amounts of work to be done. Within minutes of arrival, they split into smaller teams and got to work shoveling dirt, filling sandbags and moving large pieces of heavy debris from inside homes. The work was simple, repetitive and labor-intensive but necessary.

Despite the sweat dripping from their faces, there were smiles throughout the worksite. The volunteers knew what they were doing was meaningful.

“I volunteered because I can help my neighbors out here,” said Master-at-Arms 1st Class Jonathan Rosario. “I really think it’s a good thing we came out here to help the Japanese nationals. I really hope that there’s more opportunities [to return] because there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

When the work day came to an end, over 90 sets of boots layered with mud returned to the buses. The look of exhaustion and sunburn on faces was overcome by the sense of morale, pride and satisfaction. The ride down the mountain yielded more remarks of appreciation for just how much ruin remained.

            Collectively, they put in 450 man-hours of work and made some headway against the damage caused by the mudslide. An immeasurable amount of work still remains but their efforts have brought Asakura one step closer to returning to normal.