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Whidbey’s Lancers to the rescue

Members of VAQ-131 Lancers from Whidbey Island Naval Air Station are among the many U.S. military personnel who’ve come to the aid of people in the tsunami-ravaged region of the world.

The Lancers are a EA-6B Prowler squadron aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. According to a news release provided by Kim Martin, NAS Whidbey Public Affairs Officer, the aircraft carrier was near Hong Kong when an earthquake hit off Indonesia, causing tsunamis to sweep over countries all around the Indian Ocean. Military officials immediately sent the ship to hard-hit area of Sumatra to help with distributing supplies.

While much of the aid work is being done by helicopter teams on board, others aboard the Lincoln have volunteered to do what they can. Lancer Executive Officer Ted Williams, Lt. Comm. David Edgarton and Lt. Ken Velez were part of the first group of people flown ashore. Their job was to work with an Australian detachment of Air Force C-130 to coordinate the best way for helicopters from the ship to get in and out of landing zones at the airport, then to bring loads of supplies to some of the most inaccessible regions of the country.

On top of that, the three men were responsible for making sure the large number of media representatives descending on the remote region would have the opportunity to view the destruction from air by accompanying relief flights.

When the team arrived at the airport in the capital city of Banda Aceh, they discovered something unexpected. There were literally hundreds of boxes of supplies sitting in the hot sun among various aircraft. More and more supplies were being unloaded from C-130 aircraft, but nobody was transporting the boxes to the far-off helicopter pads, where they would be loaded into helos and distributed to starving people along the coastline.

Seeing the chaos, Williams decided to step in and get the situation under control.

“We were glad we were able to get there as quickly as we did, as it is evident there are people in great need. All the Lancers and sailors from the Abraham Lincoln are anxious to help in any way that we can,” said Williams.

Williams and his team immediately began to direct helicopters in the air and crews on the ground to get aircraft loaded and on the way again in minimal time. This task was made even more difficult by the initial lack of communications gear available on the ground.

“I must have run about four miles all around the airport as I was trying to get a helo to land in the right place,” Velez said, “or to direct a truck full of supplies to the right place, or to get word to a helicopter where they would be dropping off the next load.”

They also rolled up their sleeves, hauled supplies off the airplanes and loaded them on the helicopters. Operating in the unrelenting sun without a break, the men worked non-stop from the moment they set foot on the ground until they boarded their helicopter for their return back to the ship. It was during the transit to and from the ship each of them got an up close and personnel look at the devastation below them.

“It was truly incredible,” said Edgarton, who was primarily responsible for getting media personnel on board aircraft to cover the relief effort. “We flew along the beach on the west side and you could look down and not see one intact structure. The enormity of the destruction is unbelievable. You know by looking at it from the air that entire villages along with their populations were wiped out all at once. It’s terrible.”

Despite the numerous challenges faced by all, including inclement weather for the helicopter aircrew, the seven helicopters from the Lincoln operating out of Sultan Iskandar Muda airport delivered more than 15 tons of relief supplies to the most remote regions of the area on the first day of operations.

The three men were the first of the Lancers to have an opportunity to provide a modicum of help to the thousands of people affected by the terrible tragedy. They will not be the last.

According to the Navy, the command has been organized into several different teams that will soon begin to go ashore and do their part in the relief effort. However large or small, each member is eager to help provide humanitarian assistance in any way possible to the people in Indonesia who have been devastated by this natural catastrophe.

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