Bradenton family's Hannukah plans on hold awaiting son's return

vmannix@bradenton.comNovember 26, 2013 


U.S. Navy Lt. David Small won't be home for Thanksgiving.

Or Hannukah.

Yet his parents, Diane and Howard, fully understand and couldn't be prouder.

"He feels very useful, helpful," Small's mother said.

A naval flight officer with the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, her son is part of Operation Damayan, the U.S. military's relief operation in the Philippines region devastated by Typhoon Haiyan.

"It's crazy what's going on," Small emailed his parents Nov. 15.

The 27-year-old officer has been serving as an air traffic controller aboard an E-2C Hawkeye, the Navy's carrier-based command-and-control aircraft.

He's coordinating military aircraft delivering food, water and supplies; transporting medical personnel from Doctors Without Borders and Red Cross; and handling evacuations. He's also been involved in mapping out rural areas, finding villages and doing topography for safe landing places.

"There are long days and long flights, but I feel good doing the work I'm doing," Small emailed. "When we had to land yesterday, I was mad I couldn't be up there longer helping out."

The aircraft carrier task force was in Hong Kong and scheduled to return to its base in Atsugi, Japan, wrapping up Small's third deployment when the Category 5 typhoon ripped across the Philippines with 195-mph winds and gusts up to 235 mph.

Untold thousands are dead, an estimated 3 million displaced and basic services are non-existent amidst catastrophic damage.

"There are no communications, no electricity, no infrastructure," Small's mother said. "We haven't seen him in a year and this isn't the type of thing that can be sorted out in two weeks."

The George Washington is part of Joint Task Force 505, which includes personnel and equipment from the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, who have come from Japan, Okinawa, Hawaii and the United States.

"The Americans have brought food and water to us," Sheen Gonzales, mayor of the town of Guinan, told the American Forces Press Service. "But more importantly, they have brought us transportation to and from the island. We were isolated for many days and, without the Americans' help, my people would not be eating."

Small is airborne for six hours at a time and his duty has its challenges.

"Some places are nice and accepting help and some are mobbing the aircraft trying to get what they can," he emailed. "Some LZs (landing zones) have a few people, some have 500, some are coral reefs, some are baseball fields. Anywhere and everywhere we are sending food, water, medical supplies. I actually feel like being out here ... has done some good."

Small described one particularly hectic flight. It was his second hop of the day and supposed to be a quick night flight, so the Hawkeye pilot could stay current on his qualifications for night carrier landings.

"Well, stuff went down and I was controlling eight helicopters, two MV-22s (Ospreys) and a C-130, coordinating (them) on five radios," Small emailed. "It was by far the busiest flight I ever had, but probably the most rewarding. I was talking to one of the pilots in the helo and I heard someone in the background yell, 'Thank you!' It was awesome to hear."

The only words more awesome would be Small telling his mother he's homebound. He's got tickets to fly out in December, so she's got her fingers crossed.

"I haven't given up hope," Diane Small said. "All his Hannukah presents and cookies are on the way to him. If he comes home, we'll have a late Hannukah and do it all over again."

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Twitter: @vinmannix

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