Flood relief: A US helicopter pilot's tale
I am an American helicopter pilot in Pakistan. My colleagues and I came because Pakistan and its people are enduring the aftermath of a devastating flood. We were ordered to be here, and we miss our homes, but most of us are glad to help because we believe it's the right thing to do.
I did not know much about Pakistan before I arrived here. I knew of the food. I knew of monsoons and Mohenjo Daro, Karachi and the Khyber Pass, but I had no concept of what Pakistan looked, felt, or sounded like. I even thought many Pakistanis would want us to leave.
I had no idea what the people would be like in person. I wondered if they would resemble the images I'd seen on TV - would they protest our presence in the streets? Would they tolerate us? Or would they simply ignore us and go about their business?
After a few weeks of packing and planning, we were ready to deploy. Full of excitement and some anxiety, I kissed my wife, took one last picture and was gone. We flew on a cargo jet from Alaska to Islamabad and the flight took so long I hardly knew whether it was day or night when we finally arrived. Shouldering my gear, I headed to the terminal, weaving among Pakistani military and civilians on the tarmac. A US Marine captain guided my group inside where we filled out information cards and relaxed in the cool quietness, surveying our area; smooth stone floors, low-slung furniture, and ceiling fans spinning high above. The captain was talking to a Pakistani man who had been helping us. Before we left, the man shook my hand and looked me in the eyes. “Thank you for coming to my poor country,” he said quietly.
I wanted to convey the depth of my feelings toward him and his homeland, but all I said was, “You would probably do the same for us” as I walked away.
That was my first interaction with a Pakistani here.
The days since arriving have passed quickly. Every day we take rice, flour, blankets, housing materials, cooking oil - anything - up and down the Swat and Indus River Valleys. We also bring sick, injured, and displaced people to hospitals and hometowns.
My first mission took us up the Indus river valley, and I embarrassed myself by constantly exclaiming its beauty. Below me was the Karakorum Highway - the old Silk Road into China - and the valley itself, with terraced farmland overshadowed by majestic, snow-capped mountains.
Along with the beauty, though, I see reminders of the flood, bridges that are broken or missing and roads and fields that have been washed away. I am beginning to see widespread reconstruction now as well and feel hope for the people in these villages. They will soon have another way to get help.
I realize that some who read this will question our intentions and some may even wish us ill. I certainly did not imagine that cheering throngs would greet us at each village though - we are always welcomed. I did not expect our goodwill to be taken at face value by all of Pakistan, but we have received immense support.
I have learned in my time here that Pakistani people are truly gracious. Strangers have invited me for chai and conversation. Almost anyone will shake my hand and ask my name, inquire about my health and how I am getting along. Instead of a handshake at our first meeting, I have sometimes been embraced. “Strangers shake hands,” my new friend Mahmood explained, “but brothers hug each other.”
This warms my heart. My mission, our mission, is straightforward, noble, and good. I am deeply grateful to those who support us here, for we need all the help we can get in order to help those in need. I am honored to do this work. I feel at home here beyond anything I could have expected.
Ah, home! I miss my home, my wife and family; each day I wonder when I will see them again. But we have a humanitarian mission to accomplish. Since I must be away, I'm glad that I am here, doing work that's needed and good.
When I do return home, I will bring with me hundreds of pictures, dozens of journal entries, six duffel bags, and several recipes for local dishes that I have enjoyed, but I will also bring innumerable memories that I will treasure for life -- memories of Pakistan and its people. They have surprised me with friendship. I hope that through our work of compassion we may surprise them with friendship as well.
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