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Airmen continue to deliver relief supplies in devastated Thailand

1/4/2005 - PHUKET, Thailand (AFPN) -- As the calendar turned a new year, the aid delivered by Airmen of the 353rd Special Operations Group to communities on Thailand's southwest coast approached 100 tons.

Four MC-130s and 100 Airmen from the group continue to pump vital relief supplies into strategic cities located along the devastated coastline.

Thai officials are still identifying life-sustaining supplies such as medicine, tarps for shelter, bandages and water, as top priorities. Two massive aircraft hangars on the east side of Bangkok's sprawling airport are the collection location for donations nationwide. Trucks are taking nonperishable supplies to the coastal cities 10 hours away. In a matter of two days, donations from around the kingdom have outpaced all airlift capabilities.

Here in Thailand's largest tourist destination, the situation is dire. Upwards of 5,000 dead have been found along the coast, and Thailand's prime minister warns that number may double as outlying islands are fully examined. While this resort town was smashed by killer waves, islands offshore, like Phi Phi and Kao Lak, were completely decimated.

Lt. Col. David Mobley, from the 17th Special Operations Squadron at Kadena Air Base, Japan, is the deployed mission commander in Bangkok.

"With limited aircrews, a skeleton maintenance squad, a few spare parts and almost no support functions, the work carried out by this team is amazing," he said. "Every Airman here understands that to be doing anything else right now just wouldn't seem right."

The Americans are not alone. The Royal Thai air force has mobilized its forces and is also busy hauling life-saving cargo south.

Thai aviators have accompanied U.S. aircrews on flights to many of the remote airfields to facilitate entry, unloading of supplies and departure. Airmen involved in the operation said it has been a huge success.

"We've enjoyed very quick turnarounds because the Thais know these fields like the back of their hands," one said. "Their experience is invaluable to us getting our jobs done. With less than one day's notice, we rolled in here and began operating out of their offices and their neighborhoods like we were old friends."

An Airman assigned to the 1st Special Operations Squadron, said his impact was brought home his first day here.

"Bringing a dozen litter patients back to Bangkok was by far the most meaningful thing I've done," he said. "The sincere thanks and absolute gratitude of people whose lives have been crushed was amazing. I'll never forget it."

As a one-man ringleader, a loadmaster here directs pallets onto the aircraft every day.

"The supplies we're loading into these planes are having a huge impact on millions of people's lives today," he said. "If it's a temporary shelter for a family of five or vaccinations for 50,000, these things are important right now. It's humbling to be a part of this assistance."

The Airmen in Bangkok are under the direction of Joint Task Force 536. The task force is coordinating U.S. military relief efforts in the region and will enable leaders on the ground to maximize the efforts of people and resources.

As the new year began, the devastation in Southeast Asia was just beginning to be understood. The fatality total has reached 150,000, and continues to climb. With such dire situations on the ground, the Airmen here said they can only hope their efforts can make a difference.

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