Episcopal chaplain reports sailors are frustrated by Myanmar's intransigence

USS Juneau's crew poised to give aid
May 14, 2008

The Episcopal chaplain aboard one of four U.S. Navy ships waiting off the coast of Myanmar to deliver aid to the cyclone-ravaged country says "it is so gut wrenching seeing a government turn down help at the expense of people who have so little anyway."

"I have been praying that our powerful ships be instruments of that faithful promise of God that we proclaim in the presence of death and in such desolate moments. As a chaplain and as a community of faith and hope at sea, this, in the last resort, is our true power," the Rev. Frank Munoz, a Navy lieutenant and the command chaplain of the USS Juneau, wrote from the ship in a May 14 interview ENS conducted via email.

For nearly two weeks since a cyclone devastated the heavily populated Irrawaddy delta rice bowl -- leaving at least 43,000 people dead with a further 28, 000 missing -- the military junta that rules Myanmar has been reluctant to accept outside relief aid.

CNN reported May 13 that the Juneau, along with the USS Essex, an amphibious assault ship and the USS Harpers Ferry, a cargo dock landing ship, are in international waters off Myanmar's coast, with more than 14,000 containers of fresh water and other aid, awaiting orders to deliver by air or landing craft. The USS Mustin, a destroyer, was reportedly also in the area late last week.

"When we first arrived in the area, there was a sense of hopeful expectancy. We were like a tight rubber band ready to snap into action and now we just wait and wait," Munoz wrote. "I fear hope is fading for us, or anyone to provide any meaningful help anymore. Every day that passes is one more day that people are dying from disease and hunger and we are sitting here unable to help -- it’s very frustrating -- all we can do is shake our heads in disbelief."

The USS Juneau LPD-10, as it is formally known, is an amphibious transport dock. The ship has a medium- to large-helicopter flight deck and a well deck that can be partially lowered or sunk to fill up with sea water to launch Marines, their equipment and cargo via landing craft utility vehicles (LCU), amphibious assault vehicles (AAV) and hovercraft, Munoz told ENS. The crew numbers about 435 and the ship can embark around 800 Marines.

The "Mighty J," whose home port is Sasebo, Japan, is known as "America’s 911 LPD" because it can respond to humanitarian emergencies and military crisis within 96 hours, Munoz wrote.

"It is so frustrating as we have so much capability and desire to rescue people," Munoz wrote. "We have the rescue vehicles, we have medical personnel and we have more than 14,000 5-gallon plastic water bladders with fresh water, that Essex sailors and marines filled, that could be loaded onto LCU vehicles and helicopters to be distributed to those affected by the cyclone and yet we are sailing around in circles -- in boxes -- right off the coast of Myanmar."

The Juneau currently has more than 300 Marines from Camp Pendleton who are attached to the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) based in Okinawa. The ship was on its way to Thailand to participate in the annual bilateral exercise called Cobra Gold when it, the Essex, and the Harper's Ferry were ordered into international waters off Myanmar to render aid, according to Munoz.

The Juneau's sailors and marines have rehearsed what is called a non-combatant evacuation operation (NEO) drill which would allow them to rescue and embark stranded American citizens or Burmese villagers.

"If called on, we can send in helicopters and our AAV and rescue people from Irrawaddy Delta locations otherwise unreachable by regular land vehicles," Munoz wrote. "These AAV are incredible vehicles because they can travel and maneuver on land and through water/sea and be launched from the ship’s well deck and get onshore and travel through the interior of the delta and get to those people who are stranded on piles of homes and wood like islands surrounded by water."

Munoz wrote that he is trying to gauge the crew’s mood and give feedback to the captain.
"We still desperately want to help. We have the resources to make a difference and the manpower," he wrote. "However, everyone can sense that either it’s time to get in there and help (which we would gladly do for as long as needed) or let us go so we can go and do something else."

"There is an acceptance that being here to help is more important than any 'fun' they could possible have in any ports," Munoz added.

When the Juneau is at sea, Munoz leads an inclusive evening prayer every night over the ship’s communication system. In his email, he included a prayer he recently used during one of those services. The text follows.

O Lord, as the days pass and begin to fold into weeks like threads into cloth, it seems that one day barely seems indistinguishable from one another. I find that what holds our developing time together is the universally felt experience of waiting. Although routine punctuates our today’s and schedules our tomorrows, increasingly, waiting becomes is taking on an emotional element. Where is the mail? Will we actually be doing anything ashore or off the coast of Burma? Will we make it to any liberty ports? Will I get home in time for my leave? Waiting, O Lord, is often a hard reality if we are waiting for better days and more exciting moments. O Lord, help us with the frustrating art of waiting.

Lord we pray for those communities in China and Burma that have been devastated and are still waiting for relief and better days with food and water. Give them faith and hope that help is coming to rebuild their homes, their villages and cities, and to fill their lives with justice, their plates with food and their streets with music. Bring them peace and healing from all evil.

We pray for those traveling, who feel homesick and far away from loved ones and their homes at this time; those who are trying to get in contact with family and who are worried and frustrated and who long to embrace their families. Comfort families across the distance.

More importantly, O God: Help us to learn how to live in the present moment and understand that you also wait for us for that moment when we discover you as Father, friend, and brother.

May Almighty God grant us calm seas and a peaceful night. Amen.

-- The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is Episcopal Life Media correspondent for Episcopal Church governance, structure, and trends, as well as news of the dioceses of Province II. She is based in Neptune, New Jersey, and New York City.