“You guys wanna go see a dead body?”
This one line is the pivotal plot line to the movie Stand By Me, based on the Stephen King novella, The Body. Four 12-year-old boys take a weekend journey through the woods to find the rumored dead body of a missing boy. During this time, their friendship is cemented into a bond that lasts through the years. Pretty romantic, if you’re into that sort of thing.
The reality is less so. I can tell you this, because I saw a dead body. Several, in fact. And it shook me to my core. Still does. And I believe that as I grow old and my memories fade, that will be one of the last ones to go.
I like to begin this story on Christmas Day of 2004. I was a Sailor in the U.S. Navy stationed onboard the U.S.S Benfold (DDG-65). We were supposed to be on a carat deployment – just three months as a show of force to North Korea, then turn around and go home. I was engaged at the time, with my wedding date set to be about a month and a half after we returned. We were anchored just off of Hong Kong, where most of us spent the day celebrating with our shipmates, making the most of being separated from out families during the Holidays.
The next day, we were underway, mostly hungover, missing our families. What we didn’t know, however, was that a massive underwater earthquake triggered an epic tsunami that devastated much of the northern Indonesian coastline. The damage the waves caused is indescribable.
Pictures don’t do it justice. Thousands of miles of coastline just disappeared. The mosque above was moved off of its foundation. Approximately 230,000 dead. Since we were the closest ships to the tsunami, we, along with the rest of the U.S.S Abraham Lincoln strike group, were sent to render aid.
Because we were the first on the scene, we saw the worst of it. The Abraham Lincoln’s helicopters couldn’t even land, because the people would gather under them pleading for help. Eventually, a coordinated effort took shape and became Operation: Unified Assistance. One of us raised the question of what to do if we see dead bodies. Do we pick them up? Store them in a freezer? Or just ignore them? We were told that we were by no means to touch any bodies we may find floating in their waters. We were to log the coordinates of where we saw them and communicate that to Indonesian authorities, who would then come pick them up.
I saw my first bodies one day as we were taking on fuel. Navy ships can refuel while still underway, so we didn’t have to pull into port to gas up. The gas station came to us. My job during these evolutions was to stand aft lookout. While we were refueling, I could see between our two ships three bodies, a man, a woman, and a child. They were gray and bloated, but they were together. My first thought was that this must have been a family killed by the tsunami. I imagined them sitting together around a table, eating a meal together, when the wave struck them. Now, they just floated between our two ships, their brightly colored clothes gleaming in the sun. I thought about the child, how he would never grow up. I thought about the parents, what their final thoughts might have been. I thought of how many more lives were cut short. I reported it like I was supposed to, then just stood there. I wanted to honor them. I didn’t want them to be a statistic – just three of 230,000. I felt it was important to remember them. After all, who knows if they would even be identified? Who knows if the bodies were even picked up? Those people lived; they were a family. They deserved better.
I don’t think I came-of-age at that moment, but it was sobering, to say the least. It’s something I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life. I have no idea who they were, but I carry their memory with me. I hope that’s enough. I hope they’re at peace.