Matchsticks left in the wake of a raging giant.
That was what I saw below as the Navy helicopter moved along the Indonesian coastline two weeks after the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake rocked the region. It had been the strongest quake anywhere in the world in 40 years and the resulting tsunami, the deadliest in world history.
With an epicenter just off the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, the island was the hardest hit—especially the province of Aceh—but the tsunami claimed lives as far away as northern Africa. A June 2007 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration document lists the death toll as 287,000, though notes it’s still an estimate. The same document ranks the earthquake-tsunami combo as the seventh deadliest natural disaster ever recorded.
Nature may have lashed out nearly a decade ago, but where physical faults were revealed, human faults began to heal.
Since the 1999 crisis in East Timor, the military relationship between the U.S. and Indonesia barely existed. The United States suspended its military training program with Indonesia and ceased sales of lethal military equipment in response to violence perpetrated by pro-integration paramilitary groups and Indonesian troops when the people of East Timor voted for independence from Indonesia.
But Indonesia sits at a strategically and geographically important crossroads for the United States.
“It is the heart of the security equation in the wider Southeast Asian Region,” Anthony L. Smith wrote in a February 2005 special assessment produced for The Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies. “What worries Indonesia is a permanent U.S. force presence in the region that would infringe on Indonesia’s notions of sovereignty.”
The earthquake and tsunami amplified that fear as personnel and aid began flowing ashore, but they also significantly changed the relationship between the U.S. and Indonesia, according to Smith.
“The tsunami that hit Sumatra … turned the U.S.-Indonesia relationship on its head,” he wrote. “It is hard to imagine any other circumstance in which U.S. armed forces personnel, vehicles, aircraft and equipment would be on Indonesian terra firma.”
Indonesia didn’t necessarily want U.S. help, but it needed it. Its leaders reluctantly agreed. The U.S. would participate in Operation Unified Assistance—the name given to the post-tsunami relief effort—but with caveats.
After I reached the USS Bonhomme Richard, anchored off the Sumatran coast, each day began the same way. We left the ship via Sea Knight CH-46 helicopter—some via Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC), a military hovercraft—with a contingent of Marines or sailors, and headed for the Meulaboh beach. Meulaboh is the capital of the West Aceh regency, and was one of the areas hardest hit by the tsunami.
The reason for the back and forth? The Marines on the beach said the Indonesians feared a scenario that seemed to be playing out before them. A natural disaster prompts the United States to provide humanitarian relief, but instead of exiting gracefully when the disaster-ravaged country is stabilized, the U.S. troops stay … permanently.
After discussions with retired Rear Admiral Frank Thorp IV, who served on the Joint Staff in 2005 and was privy to the planning process—and considering Smith’s look at the situation—I believe the premise of the Marines’ story was accurate, but the truth became exaggerated as it rolled down through the ranks. The U.S. military was sensitive to Indonesian concerns and worked hard not to appear to be an occupying force.
Bottom line: no troops stayed ashore during the relief effort, nor were they armed. They arrived in the morning and departed as the sun started to sink.
From the makeshift landing zone, the tsunami carved a clear sight line to the beach. Strewn on the ground was the debris from the lives of those who had once inhabited the hollowed structures whose walls refused to cave. One building at the edge of the beach, I learned, had been a school and the Marines of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) used its ruins for shade as they awaited another delivery of relief supplies that would be loaded onto trucks and hauled farther inland to refugee camps.
The Marines weren’t alone. They requested the presence of the Indonesian military to keep the remaining locals behind a marked perimeter while they unloaded supplies—mostly rice and bottled water. A request of necessity, but it was also an olive branch extended to the Indonesian military.
It soon became apparent that, regardless of what was happening between military officials above the pay grades of the men and women on the beach, the fundamentals of a relationship existed in the ranks.
One LCAC loaded with supplies had already arrived, but the day was hot and humid and the sun beat down as the Marines waited for the second. A coconut palm near the former school provided a weak shade spot. It was already mid-morning and we wondered when the second delivery would arrive. The Indonesian soldiers were getting restless, too. One of them scaled the palm tree—barehanded and barefooted—dropping several large green coconuts to the sand below.
Interaction between the militaries had been limited because of the language barrier until Indonesian Sergeant Hadi Supriyanto looked at Marine Sergeant Major David Bullock, the noncommissioned officer in charge, and pointed at one of the coconuts. With a smile, Supiryanto drew a large knife and offered it to Bullock. The American’s quizzical look prompted Supiryanto to begin hacking at the coconut before handing the project over to Bullock who, after a few misplaced whacks, cracked through the shell and took a long drink of fresh coconut water, earning approving smiles from the Indonesians.
The new camaraderie buoyed spirits as the second LCAC arrived. Thirty-five pallets of supplies later, the task was only half complete. The supplies still needed to be loaded onto trucks, one of which was stuck in the sand. A fair amount of pushing, coupled with some long planks under the back tires, freed the truck and sparked a round of cheering and back-patting—and a request for a group picture.
Moving the truck meant it was now much farther from the supplies. No matter, Indonesian Captain Benny Fauzi and Bullock organized a “bucket brigade” to quickly move the boxes. Rolling with the goodwill that had already been generated—and to silence complaints about being hot and tired—the two couldn’t help but engage in some friendly competition. While it was hardly fair—Bullock muscled two boxes of bottled water to Fauzi’s one—they raced to the trucks. The awe and laughter strengthened the bond that had begun to form and the trucks soon rumbled off to their final destinations.
Bullock had won, but Fauzi immediately challenged him to an arm-wrestling match after the supplies were on their way.
As the troops gathered around their leaders the terms of victory were laid out.
“What do I get if I win?” Fauzi asked.
“My friendship,” Bullock replied.
Fauzi, feigning disappointment, began negotiating for a uniform. Eventually, he settled for one of Bullock’s unit-logoed t-shirts, but offered one of his uniforms in exchange.
The competition ended in a stalemate, but a rematch was promised. The two
exchanged a high-five and a handshake before the Marines headed back to the Bonhomme Richard for the night.
I saw scenes that ended with the same sentiment as other U.S. military units acted as ambassadors, not only to the Indonesian military, but also to the people of Indonesia.
A unit of Navy dentists, led by Dr. (Lieutenant) Dan Grossman, worked magic for the people of Meulaboh during its brief dental clinic. It involved mostly exams and extractions of damaged teeth, Grossman said, but it was what the local residents wanted and needed. Among the Indonesians, he was known as “Dr. Gigi,” literally “Dr. Teeth.”
The team’s positive impact was perhaps most evident when an 8-year-old boy, in to have a painful tooth pulled, was leaving with his father. Navy Lieutenant Chris Hamlin asked the youngster a simple question: “Better?”
Arms folded and head down, he offered a single, solemn head nod.
The interactions I observed—whether military-to-military or military-to-civilian—seem to have been a precursor to a true healing between the U.S. and Indonesian military. I imagine that what happened in Meulaboh also happened in other parts of Indonesia, creating a solid base for the militaries to move forward.
These efforts seem to have paid off. According to a September 2012 Center for Strategic and International Studies article by Murray Heibert and Jeremiah Magpile, “The concrete steps taken in a number of key areas demonstrate the extent to which the U.S.-Indonesia relations have matured since President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono proposed a Comprehensive Partnership in 2008.”
Yudhoyono also was president at the time of the earthquake and tsunami. Since then, some of the greatest strides have been in military relations, the pair wrote.
According to the State Department, international military education and training with Indonesia resumed in February 2005, and Foreign Military Financing for the country “in select areas of military assistance,” resumed that November.
In the nine years since the earthquake and tsunami, the countries have engaged in multiple training and relationship-building exercises. Last year, the militaries were scheduled to have nearly 200 joint engagements focused in the areas of maritime security, peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief and reform and professionalization of the military.
Already this year, the U.S. and Indonesia have conducted everything from earthquake and tsunami preparedness—an early warning system was put in place after the 2004 tsunami—to the seventh Garuda Shield, an annual training exercise that brought medical and dental care to the people of Indonesia.
The Navy also paired with the Indonesian military for a new endeavor, SEASURVEX, or Sea Surveillance Exercise. The inaugural exercise held in June aimed to improve airborne maritime reconnaissance interoperability between the two nations.
Much has changed since December 2004, from the landscape of Indonesia to the landscape of the relationship between our nations.
Editor’s note: Portions of this article were drawn from the author’s reporting while writing for American Forces Press Service.
Samantha L. Quigley is the editor in chief of ON★PATROL.