Seven cadets from the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. — including five Latter-day Saint returned missionaries — took their spring break and flew to Japan to give volunteer service in the remote town of Ayukawahama, which was devastated by the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami.
This area received some of the worst damage as a result of the biggest natural disaster to hit Japan in a thousand years.
While in Japan the cadets dug and unclogged 13 tons of sludge and debris from 392 meters of water drain along the Kyubun coast in Ayukawahama — providing running water and a drainage system for the homes in the city.
The group also moved desks from Yugawa Elementary School — which was damaged in the disaster and officially closed in March 2012. In addition, they helped build a memorial room to remember Yugawa Elementary at the new Ohara Elementary, the school built to replace the damaged school.
Before the trip, the cadets — including Bill Merkle of Washington, D.C., Jack Waller of Mission Viejo, Calif., Ethan Salgado of Simi Valley, Calif., Nathaniel Youd of Cari, N.C., Bradford Hackert of Thomaston, Conn., Joseph Suwabe of Riverdale, N.Y., and Chris Raskey, Orlando, Fla. — organized a service club, "Cadets in Action Overseas."
They had tried since the fall of last year to get official government sponsorship for the trip. But when the funds were not available, each cadet paid his own air fare to Japan, where they traveled 200 miles north to the Oshika Peninsula and joined a Mormon Helping Hands project organized by the Church. During their time in Japan, the cadets slept on the floor in a temporary community center without heat or hot water.
Each, however, said the service was worth the effort.
Cadet Waller spoke to a woman in Japan at a convenience store. "When she learned that we were volunteering to help clean up in the aftermath of the tsunami, she had a look in her eyes and in her body language that expressed 'thank you,' and then she said, 'Arigato gozaimasu.' That was all the Japanese that I understood at that point in time, but just the way she said it, and the spirit that was about her, really told me that the service we were giving really meant something to her." — Conan Grames, Asia North Area director of public affairs