Sent to the Rescue

USF Naval ROTC alumni briefly reunited during Typhoon Haiyan disaster relief in the Philippines.

 USF NROTC alumna Amanda McNally flying over devastated landscape to deliver supplies in the days after Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines. 
Photo by: LT David Eckardt

By Barbara Melendez

     USF News

TAMPA, Fla. (March 6, 2014) – Devastation. Dangerous conditions. Very little sleep. Malaria pills. Even in such a setting, there are rewards, namely saving lives.

This was the case for at least four USF Naval ROTC (NROTC) alumni – three from the class of ’08 and one from ’09 – in the immediate aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan when they became part of Operation Damayan – the word for mutual aid in Tagalog.

In the first days after the cataclysmic storm hit, Navy Lieutenants Robert Thompson, David "Trebek" Small, Amanda McNally (pictured on the USF home page) and USMC Captain Austin Majette couldn’t imagine a more gratifying assignment.

They were among the U.S. forces that made it possible for some of the first evacuation and rescue efforts to take place in the Philippines and paved the way for the UN and USAID to arrive and take control from the ground. Though all four are in the U.S. Navy/Marine Corps team, they spend a great deal of their time in the air.

Flying in aircraft known as Ospreys, Hawkeyes and Seahawks, they brought aid from Clark Air Base in Manila and moved residents from offshore islands to the mainland. They also moved large amounts of food and water to Guyan and Tacloban Airports where more helicopters would quickly move in and out of various areas.

USMC Captain Austin Majette directing air traffic at the airport in Tacloban, Philippines.  

Photo by: LT David Eckardt

“We dropped everything and pulled out of our port call early to go help. It’s not an easy thing to redirect a Carrier Strike Group and Carrier Air Wing,” said Small who was one of the mission commanders charged with organizing several rescues and evacuations. “But humanitarian assistance and disaster relief are such an important mission set we have. Flying around for up to six hours at a time, landing, refueling and going up again all day was such an incredible experience. And when you weren't flying, you were assisting plotting the landing zones, how much and where aid had been delivered, and standing watch so others could fly.”

Not knowing what to expect

With no infrastructure left, Small said, “We were it. We were coordinating all the helicopters, MV-22's, C-130's, deciding where to deliver food, medical personnel, evacuations, etc. for that first week. It was heart-breaking looking out and seeing the devastation, or having the helo pilots call back with what they saw.”

McNally joined the Navy and selected helicopters because she wanted to help people in need. “I wanted the opportunity, if it ever arose, to participate in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.”

She got her chance.

“On the first day of full flight operations, I didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “As I flew off of the carrier and over the beach line, the devastation and destruction immediately broke my heart. People were so desperate to get our attention and assistance that I had to quickly remind myself to focus on the task at hand.

“We were tasked to proceed to Tacloban Airport to pick up supplies and deliver them to locations of opportunity. Every village was a location of opportunity, meaning everyone was in desperate need of supplies. We would coordinate a location on the radio with the E-2C Hawkeye to drop supplies or would find one along our route of flight.”

Devastation left an unforgettable impression on everyone.

Photo: AP

Thompson saw “an incredible sight” that he will never forget. “The most shocking aspect of the devastation was the palm trees. I’ve lived in Puerto Rico and Florida for the majority of my life, and it is nearly impossible to knock over a palm tree. However, flying over the region, nearly every single palm tree – and there had to be millions of them – had been knocked on its side. I expected to see bare palm trees, but I did not expect to see them completely uprooted. The area was absolutely devastated. No building stood along the coast. And as we flew over towns low on our way back to the ship, we saw several signs spelling out ‘help’ and ‘food’ all over the place,” he said.

Creative problem-solving in action

McNally’s first assignment involved an evacuation of a small island of 118 people.

“As we circled around the island we quickly realized that we had nowhere to land due to the high tide. After an in-depth discussion with my crew, we decided that we were going to hoist the locals up via the rescue basket. We initially lowered one crewman down via the rescue hoist, followed by our translator in the rescue basket to coordinate the evacuation. It took several hours as we could only hoist two people in the basket at a time, and could fit between 20 and 24 people in the cabin.”

This was just the beginning.

Typhoon Haiyan was the most destructive in Philippine history.  Photo by Captain Austin Majette

“Delivering supplies and medical/rescue teams became our daily routine. We landed in the middle of elementary schools, basketball courts, beaches, fields, basically anywhere we could fit the helicopter. When we didn’t have a place to land or there was too much debris, often times my crew and I would hover at the end of a jetty and drop the supplies as close as possible. If we didn’t have a clear area to hover low, we would lower the crewman up and down via the rescue hoist with supplies,” she said.

Thompson added, “There was more food and water delivery than you could possibly imagine.” But delivering them was no easy matter.

“After finding a village to supply, we would circle overhead to look for a place to land. People would appear out of nowhere,” McNally said. “There were countless times where we were unable to land due to the amount of people. If we would hover too low, they would try climbing on the aircraft, putting both themselves and the crew in danger. Some areas were mild and orderly, where if we had a place to land, we did. Others were chaotic where we would just come into a low hover and distribute the supplies. After we emptied the cabin, the locals were extremely grateful. Men, women and children would wave and blow us kisses.”

They saw progress being made.

Rescue and relief efforts were underway within a day of the Nov. 8 storm.  Photo by AWS2 Joseph Bruno.

“We were there for almost two weeks and definitely saw the situation improving daily,” said McNally who was awarded “Top Rotor” for the amount of flight time and mission success she had during their operations.

Thompson said, “Many of the roads had been cleared by day seven which also allowed trucks to begin aid delivery and also Filipino military to provide much needed security. I think many of us wanted to stay a little longer.” He sat copilot in Hawkeyes, primarily responsible for communication relays between the ground and his ship, the USS George Washington (CVN-73), which was cleared out as additional ships arrived.

“Unfortunately, many of the helo pilots also had to deal with the reality of seeing hundreds of bodies both ashore and floating in the waters. Their stories are very hard but very helpful to sit through at the same time,” he said.

Finding fellow Bulls

Majette arrived from Okinawa about three days after his fellow alumni.

“As the OIC for his detachment, he led the effort to establish an approach and tower control at Tacloban Airport,” Thompson said. “Trebek (Small) and I didn't realize it at the time, but we both had several one-on-one conversations with Austin his first days in Tacloban as they set up shop. Looking back on it, it's pretty cool to know that we had four USF grads all talking to each other on the radio in a foreign country at the exact same time.”

It turns out Small ran into even more USF NROTC alumni, helicopter pilots Kyle Huff (2008) and Nathan Rice (2009) and another he knows only as Ingrid. Marine First Lieutenant Andrew Serpa (2009) was also there. “It’s amazing how many members of the USF NROTC I have run into out here!”

Someone who hears from many of them is USF’s Joint Military Leadership Center Associate Director John Sarao.

“I am very proud to see the positive impact these young naval officers have made in this humanitarian operation.I first met each of them as brand new freshmen when they attended orientation for the NROTC program.It was very gratifying to see them mature and develop through much hard work and dedication to become a commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.We, as a nation, are now reaping the benefits.”

“In summary, it was a great experience,” Thompson said. “It's nice to see us involved with that aspect of Southeast Asia.”

McNally agreed. “This has been the most rewarding and humbling experience of my career to date. Seeing the smiles on the children’s faces just made it that much better.”

Her advice for current NROTC members is, “Learn from your interactions with the other ROTC units, as one day you will be working with them to accomplish the mission.” And for her, “aviation equals action” and she promotes her unit with pride, “Fly rotary-wing Navy!”

Small asked to go to Japan because he wanted “a different operational experience than that of stateside squadrons. The deployments are different, your mission is different, and not to mention the experience of living overseas. It has been incredible and I would not have traded it for anything.”

He returned to USF and the NROTC unit in December while on holiday leave. He saw “lots of new buildings, re-designs, and changes, but it still felt like good old USF to me. I love where the school is heading, the new buildings are amazing, and NROTC unit is improving every year.”

His USF experiences are still with him.

“NROTC taught me the foundations for naval leadership, starting from basic naval history to ethics and morals. My four years in NROTC all made me a better person and officer. I took all the training and lessons I learned and try to apply them every day.” And he added, “Operation Damayan was one of the most powerful things I have been involved in.”

Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563