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US Aid Flights Saving Lives in Tsunami-Devastated Aceh

U.S. Navy helicopter crews are flying long hours to bring desperately needed aid to victims of the December 26 earthquake tsunami in Indonesia's Aceh Province. VOA's Nancy-Amelia Collins in Banda Aceh went along on one helicopter mercy mission

It is barely dawn in Banda Aceh, the U.S. Navy's 28-year-old Petty Officer 1st Class Xipe Brooks, has been working throughout the night.

As his helicopter takes off from Banda Aceh's military airport, Petty Officer Brooks checks the boxes of high-energy crackers, rice, and noodles his team is bringing to the refugees from the tsunami and earthquake.

The USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier group is just off Aceh's coast, helping provide relief supplies and aid. Ten helicopters from the ships are taking some 16,000 kilos of food and water daily to refugees who cannot be reached by road.

The ferocity of the tsunami destroyed much of the coastline, wiping out bridges and roads, especially along the west coast.

Well into the second week after the disaster, the only way to reach many people is by helicopter.

"We're trying to pass out as much water and get the people who are severely injured, broken legs, amputated arms, get them out of the area and back to Banda Aceh, so as we fly up and down the coast dropping off supplies," said Officer Brooks. "On our way back, when the cabin's empty, we look for people to pick up and take back with us to the refugee camps."

He has a wrinkled piece of paper with phrases written in Bahasa Indonesian, such as "Do you need water?", "Is anybody injured?" The helicopter crew relies on these phrases for helping refugees they find.

At least 150,000 people were killed by the tsunami in 12 Indian Ocean countries - Aceh accounts for two thirds of the deaths.

Flying above Aceh's once-beautiful west coast, only bits and pieces can be seen in what had been lively communities.

Petty Officer Brooks says he has never seen a disaster of this magnitude and admits it hurts to see such suffering. "We try to take it day by day, you know this is our job," he added. "We talk with the chaplains and we have people to talk with back on the boat. Everybody has seen things but you know now is not the time, these people need our help. We need to get out every day and do our job."

The United States has thus far committed $350 million and 13,000 troops and more than a dozen ships to help the unprecedented international relief effort in the Indian Ocean countries. More is expected in the coming days.