By Betty Lawrence
When the Dec. 26 tsunami struck the Indonesian island of Sumatra, a mammoth relief effort poured in from countries throughout the world.
Helping with the effort is Celina native Paul Burnett, a Navy sailor aboard the USS Shiloh.
"I cannot describe the destruction," the 27-year-old Burnett wrote through e-mail. "The first week we were there, we saw a lot of debris in the water just floating by the ship -- everything from trees and household goods to bodies. It was pretty surreal."
The 350-sailor strong Shiloh was part of 11 warships and the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln loaded with supplies, helicopters and manpower deployed to help with relief efforts. The Shiloh, ported in Hong Kong, was scheduled to go to Japan for another port visit when the tsunami hit and plans were changed. Burnett is an electronics technician aboard the ship.
"They told us that we were heading in the area where the tsunami had just hit, and they didn't know when we would get to come home," Burnett wrote earlier this week. "It was a pretty big shock, being that you don't usually hear of the Navy going in to assist in humanitarian efforts. So we knew it must have been a really big deal." It was a big deal.
According to Indonesia's Health Ministry, and as reported by The Associated Press on Wednesday, the latest figures put the overall death toll between 143,877 and 178,081 (excluding the missing) across an 11-nation disaster zone.
Indonesia and Sri Lanka, situated at the epicenter of the earthquake and resulting tsunami, were the worst hit nations.
Burnett and the troops he's traveling with are assisting at Banda Aceh, situated at the northern tip of Sumatra. Their primary mission is to assist in getting food supplies to remote areas. Daily, a group of 50 sailors are selected from the ships to go to shore to load helicopters. The helicopters then fly off to the remote villages.
"Each day we fly off sailors to help on shore, and each night they are all flown back to their respective ships," he explained.
The supplies consist mostly of rice, water, baby food and noodles, and sometimes slightly change. He wrote that the loading is grueling due to the heat and rain.
"But it has been without a doubt one of the most satisfying things I have ever done in my life," he continued. "Deep inside, you imagine all the people and families that had their homes and lives completely turned upside down. But on the good side, I will never forget having the ability to help others. It is a lot better than the usual military plan."
The areas that Burnett flew over were mostly washed away. Houses that were still standing were surrounded by water, he said.
"With the amount of rain that fell each day, it is hard to imagine the homes ever drying out," Burnett wrote.
Burnett said he has not had any contact with locals, except for the police and military, who he found to be friendly and courteous to the Americans.
"I hear all these things about rebels being all around, but we didn't have any run-ins or feel like there could be," he said.
Burnett's six-year enlistment with the Navy ends in August. He said he plans to return home to finish school and follow another career path.
"The Navy has been very exciting, but now it is time to do something different. I presently am focused on getting ready for school right now. After that, I'll be ready for anything," he wrote.
Burnett also served in Iraq from September 2003 to March 2004.
"The only thing these two missions have in common is that everyone is missing their families. The largest difference is that before, the crew seemed to have differing opinions on reasons for being in Iraq and if what we were doing was the right thing. For this mission, however, everyone I have talked to is proud to be here and more than happy to do anything to help," he said.
Burnett originally was scheduled to go home Feb. 4, but the tsunami caused an extension for at least 30 days and up to 60 days.
The most difficult thing of any deployment, he said, is being away from his family, which includes his wife, Jennifer, who lives in San Diego, and his parents, Homer and Carol Burnett of Celina.
"My wife is very strong. It takes a lot and a very special person to have your husband gone for half of the year to places all over the world," he wrote. "She helps me out so much while I'm gone. I miss her every day I'm here."
The Daily Standard also learned that Tina Zacharias, 21, a 2001 graduate of Celina High School, is serving with the U.S. Navy in the relief effort aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. She is the daughter of Randy and Miriam Zacharias, Celina, and could not be reached for comment.