Monday, October 5, 2009

Padang quake relief '09

With the school examination season in full swing, scores of school children who are the sons and daughters of Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) personnel are soldiering on without moral support from daddy.

These are children from military families whose fathers have responded to a call to action for the quake relief mission in Padang, Indonesia.

At home, wives are promoted to head of household – albeit temporarily - juggling multiple and largely unpaid responsibilities as home-maker, mother and military wife. If you think this is easy, try it yourself.

Alas, there are no medals to be earned. No hardship allowances to apply for and no off-in-lieus to hanker over by family members when duty calls.

The unspoken cost of an SAF career is offset to a large degree by the support network forged between spouses of SAF personnel who fuss over and look out for one another. In recent years, this network has started to include a small but growing number of husbands as more Singaporean women come forward and choose a career in uniform.

Helping ease things along are the Family Liaison Officers (FLOs). Their brief is to keep family members updated with the pulse of the SAF overseas mission or training attachment and ensure the household is in order. Great tact is needed by these liaison officers as they have to make the transition from erstwhile stranger to family friend and confidant. They must be embraced by the household as a guardian who pries into a family’s activities, making sure all’s well. Many of such chit chats take place after normal working hours – the concept of union hours being totally alien to those who serve in uniform.

If the FLOs are lucky, they might even be allowed to claim transport cost. If you're one of those who thinks fuel is free, please step forward to sponsor an FLO.

When I reported on the SAF’s tsunami relief mission in early 2005, I met several SAF personnel who were almost never found in the queue line for the satellite phone. With some tact, I asked them why they never courted the satellite phone.

They replied that as phone services in the area of operations might be erratic, they did not want to worry their family excessively by promising to call at a certain time interval. It made perfect sense: phone coverage could be down for several reasons (overload of the base stations, lack of power, damage to the phone network) and “no news is good news” formed the SOP for a number of SAF families. If they didn't call, they were OK.

As the SAF mission in Padang unfolds, let us not forget the supporting cast who make it all possible.

The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) ground crew who made C-130 Hercules transport aircraft mission ready, the logisticians who planned the type, amount and loading sequence of relief cargo are some of the vital cogs in the wheels that scarcely earned a mention in Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) news releases on these missions.

The C-130s are more than a taxi service. But readers of the 90 cents newspaper could be forgiven for forming that impression from the paucity of information on the squadron’s role in flying the air bridge between Singapore and Padang.

For the record, the squadron typically flies the Singapore Civil Defence Force's Operation Lion Heart rescue team into its area of operations too. But reading local newspaper reports might give people the impression the team was suddenly teleported into theatre.

Living close to the flight path leading to WSAP allows me to see or hear almost everything that goes in and out of Paya Lebar Air Base, including the unusual drone that sometimes flies in the dead of the night.....

Pilots and aircrew from 122 Squadron evidently had a busy spell on Friday evening (2 Oct 2009) and Saturday afternoon (3 Oct 2009) and I watched the afternoon flights depart on Saturday, two C-130s at a time in trail formation. Next stop: Padang.

It's at moments like these when MINDEF Public Affairs (PAFF) should be more proactive, in my honest opinion. I know of journalists who would have readily joined the relief flights but were brushed off by PAFF with what I feel is a somewhat high-handed retort "If we need you to go, we'll call you". So a ready-made story on a real SAF mission got canned. Pity.

This was no Berlin Airlift. But in the context of the RSAF, having nearly half of its C-130 fleet made mission ready for Padang at short notice speaks volumes of the dedication of the RSAF personnel. It is an achievement that should not be taken for granted.

A first hand account by journalists aboard one of the relief flights would drive home the point that RSAF C-130s are no fetch and drop off service. It would also emphasize the point that the earthquake relief missions are multi-faceted and complex, involving far more than the medical aspect. Last week's airlift was, in my view, the largest relief flights since the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.

The Sing-Padang Air Bridge effort should have merited more than a cursory mention in PAFF news releases. But I'm no PR experten, so perhaps PAFF had its reasons for glossing over its significance.

Alas, PAFF's drawer plan for HADR media management seems to follow a one size fits all template.

In that aspect, PAFF is utterly dependable.


Ben Choong said...

Yes, I have noticed the increased traffic too...thanks for bringing to light the efforts of these unsung heroes! It must be really tough being a FLO...

Oh, the drone is sometimes heard in the day as well...

Ben Choong said...

Updates from MINDEF on the relief efforts have been pretty regular, with videos and no small amount of pics as well...its early, but this time around the PR campaign feels a bit different from OFE...

FinalFive said...

The PR campaign feels different from OFE because it is so scripted, so turgid and so constipated that the real stories can't flow through. If there is anything to observe from Ministry style writing, it is that they want to give a nice 'broad overview' and keep the weaknesses glossed over.

goat89 said...

I am studying in Canada now... not many people know of SEA's, Singapore included too of course, capabilities to respond to such natural disasters. The news here isnt so keen on such info as on Western military powers. From what I know, the ADF scoff at this too. Singapore is really fast on such rapid deployment. My heart is with those deployed on the mission and those in need in Indo... though I heard that the Indonesian government is requesting a stop to all rescue Ops as it has been too long already? RIP to the fallen and good job on the rescue personnel.

goat89 said...

bdique? Bro! From right? Its me goat89! :D

Ben Choong said...

goat89, awesome to see you here! :)

FIVE-TWO said...

Sing-Padang Air Bridge! What a spine-tingling idea!