When the tsunami hit Indian Ocean countries in December, reserve Captain Chris Miller, 47, with the Forest Park Reserve Center watched the results of the devastation in horror at home with his family in Harpers Ferry, W.Va.
Like many Americans that week, Miller and his family tried to provide help any way he could and thought to donate food and clothes through charitable organizations.
“You feel so inadequate donating at the church and giving them some money,” Miller said. “When I saw that, I thought it would be something I would really like to help out with.”
And he got his wish when the military gave him a call asking for help.
Miller is a reservist with the Forest Park Center, where he is the commanding officer of the Fleet Support Training Unit (FSTU), Det-298.
He used to live in Iowa City, IA and Forest Park’s Reserve Center was the closest place he could get a paid position as a reservist. When he moved to the D.C. area last June, he wasn’t done with his two year tour in the center and remains a commuter reservist with Forest Park, holding the rank of captain, a naval rank that is the equivalent of a colonel in the Army.
Immediately following the tsunami, the military began coordinating efforts through the U.S. Pacific Command in Camp Smith, Hawaii. But the damage and devastation was too much, and soon active duty personnel realized they needed help.
The Pacific Command requested Miller within days of the tsunami?”they asked for him by name, because they knew him and knew what he was capable of.
With the FSTU, Miller trains sailors in shipboard damage control, a skill that translates easily into disaster relief.
Damage control includes firefighting, responding to flooding casualties, emergency structural repair and chemical, biological and radiological (CBR) defense.
Officers at Pacific Command also knew him because, in Miller’s last reserve assignment at the Naval Reserve Center in Green Bay, he drilled with Pacific Command.
“I served [with them] for about a five year period, from 1997 to 2002 in other capacities and I was getting ready to go over there for an exercise where they practice various war fighting scenarios,” he said.
Miller, who coordinated efforts for the relief from Camp Smith in Hawaii, didn’t get to go in-country but instead worked on the logistics of this massive mission.
“I was hoping to go in-country at some point, to go to Thailand or Indonesia,” he said. “But where they really needed me [was in logistics.] The guys were working 14-hour shifts and they hadn’t had a break since Dec 26.”
When called, and without hesitation, Miller left his civilian job with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and left for the Pacific, arriving at the Pacific Command on January 12, 2005, where he too began working 14-hour days immediately.
Miller’s job was to make the trains run on-time. An easy enough task if you are working on a regular shipping and train schedule.
On the tsunami front, however, he had to coordinate ships and aircraft and their cargo, executing an improvised response to a one-time disaster. No one really had a regular schedule and everyone was simply concentrating on getting as much as possible to the region. Basically, it was a logistical nightmare.
“The American military did something nobody else could have done,” says Miller. “In a short period of time they got a lot of equipment over there. You would see pictures of sailors aboard ship on their off-hours filling water bottles. Everybody pitched in and everybody worked together to accomplish the noble goal of helping out dying people.”
The military, however, is a first-response unit, after which they gradually enforce their “exit strategy:” to turn over the relief efforts to the United Nations and private charitable organizations.
This gradual turnover was also a part of Miller’s coordinating efforts.
To ensure the exit strategy would work, each day, Miller would collect all available data and brief Air Force Major General Gary L. North on the status of the United Nations’ capabilities.
“We didn’t want to leave until we knew the United Nations had the lift capacity in helicopters, ships and wide-body aircraft,” Miller said. “As the days went on we ramped up to where we were providing a lot [of support], then we started providing less and [the United Nations] started providing more.”
Tsunami relief, however, turned out to be a delicate diplomatic mission as well for Miller.
“We came over there with significant engineering capability,” he said. “We could have provided some more engineering work to the Indonesians but they didn’t always take what we recommended to them. They seemed to be not wanting to have U.S. military personnel stay around in the area. So our engineers didn’t get to do all the missions we thought they could have done.”
In total, Miller coordinated relief to four countries: Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
In some cases, intergovernmental relationships proved beneficial to relief workers, in others it was less than helpful for coordinating the response.
Relations between the U.S. military and Thailand, for example, were so close that the senior U.S. military person in the theater worked from Utapao Airport in Thailand.
Two maritime pre-positioning ships also went from island to island in the Maldives to provide fresh water, since all fresh water wells were contaminated.
This effort was especially important, given that, while humans can go weeks without food, dehydration kills in days and the Maldives water reserves would last less than two weeks.
In Indonesia, where the devastation was the greatest, relief work proved a little more difficult, as cultural and political considerations necessarily shaped the relief provided.
The Indonesian government expressed preference for minimizing the number of Americans physically in Indonesia and, initially, wanted them to be in the area for only 30 days.
“To some that was a big shock,” Miller said about the Indonesian reaction. “It was just a feeling you got that they were leery of having our presence there.”
The Indonesian government also expressed a preference that medical care be provided at Indonesian facilities. “They didn’t want any American medical help,” Miller said. “We were scratching our heads thinking, we have this ship outfitted with the best medical equipment and the need is clear.”
In the end, however, this mission of mercy, Miller said, was not only a worthy cause but it helped people change their minds about the United States for the better?”the Indonesian government even came full-circle allowing the U.S. to provide aid for more than the 30 day limit.
“I think we gained good political ground,” Miller said. “There was a lot of mistrust at first, but it softened and the people were very gracious.”
Miller’s tour in the tsunami relief effort wasn’t without his own diplomatic maneuvers back home.
Since responding to the tsunami wasn’t a presidential recall, as would be used to activate reservists for war, Miller’s employer was technically not obligated to let him go.
It also wasn’t clear where the money should come from to pay Miller while on active duty.
In Miller’s case, however, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission gave him a green with almost no hesitation.
“The thing that I liked the best about that was my boss’ response: Go for it, that’s a higher calling,” Miller said. “I knew they didn’t have to let me go?”I wasn’t forced to go on orders yet they were supporting me 100 percent.”
In the end, the Navy found a way to get Miller on the tsunami front lines and he was activated for 29 days, paid for by reprogramming normal reserve funds.
Today Miller is back in the D.C. area, at work and with his supportive family.
Miller’s tour with the Forest Park Reserve Center will end in October this year. After that he will have to compete for one of a limited number of paid positions in the reserves.