Downey resident encounters Japanese aftermath firsthand

DOWNEY - In 1991, fresh out of high school, Ruben Guerrero enlisted in the Navy, eager to serve his country."I joined the Navy because I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself," said Guerrero, who'll be 39 in June. "The Navy has opened so many doors for me. I have traveled to England, France, Spain, Italy, Turkey, Greece, Israel, Thailand, China...none of which could have been possible without the Navy." After nearly 20 years of military service, Guerrero, just months away from retirement, thought his final days in the Navy would be spent aboard the USS Ronald Reagan working the flight deck. But the unexpected happened on March 11 when a 9.0 magnitude earthquake rocked the northeast coast of Japan. "We were on our way to conduct training operations near the Korean peninsula when this catastrophe took place...My initial reaction was shock," said Guerrero, a Downey resident since 1999. "I was stationed in Japan for nearly three years...onboard USS Kitty Hawk out of Yokosuka, Japan before reporting to the Reagan in 2007. "I have shipmates there. I have a few friends that live in Tokyo as well ‚àí my prayers went out to them." Currently, Guerrero, along with nearly 6,000 other crew members aboard the USS Ronald Reagan, is stationed off of Japan's coast doing what he can to ensure that vital resources are delivered to those most in need before his retirement date this May. While this isn't the first time he's witnessed such devastation, Guerrero says he felt unsettled once the U.S. naval vessel arrived in Japan. "Our time here has been surreal...there are still aftershocks daily," he wrote in an e-mail response. "We are doing humanitarian missions daily dropping food and water to over 80 drop sites. It is bitterly cold which makes work on the flight deck very challenging. An average day consists of many helicopter sorties flying out to the sites, assisting the Japanese people ‚àí it makes it rewarding for us." Despite the potential radiation risks, Guerrero says the Navy has not wavered, but continues to provide aid. Nonetheless, officials are keeping sailors and their families updated, alerting them of possible health threats. "We receive daily situation reports from our Commanding Officer. Right now our stay here is unknown. I assume we'll be here as long as the Japanese need assistance," said Guerrero. "Every precaution is being taken to ensure we are safe and can continue our mission." In any case, Guerrero is confident that he will return home from Japan just in time for his retirement on May 31. "As of now I am still on track to retire on time and firmly believe I will. I should start my transit to the US in the near future," said Guerrero. "I plan on going back to school and furthering my education. I am looking forward to the next chapter in my life. I am truly grateful. I leave with no regrets or complaints only cherished memories and some lifelong friends." Though Japan yet faces a long, daunting period of healing and recovery, Guerrero says the people have demonstrated nothing but humility and gratitude. "We receive tons of thank you letters and appreciation for our quick response. I can't say for certain what their reaction is since I am onboard the ship, but from what I hear they are very welcoming," he said. "I was involved in Bosnia in 1994 that was more brutal since it was self-inflicted...this by far is the most tragedy I have ever experienced. It is something I will always remember."

********** Published: March 31, 2011 - Volume 9 - Issue 50