BURBANK — As a U.S. Army combat soldier in Iraq, Ryan Welker has seen the devastation a war can reap on a country.
However, his time in the Middle East couldn't have prepared him for the situation he has encountered the past eight days.
Welker, who grew up in Burbank, is a sergeant stationed at Misawa Air Base in Aomori, Japan. Although his residence is 200 miles north of the epicenter of the massive earthquake that hit near Sendai on March 11, he has witnessed his share of damage, heartache and trauma associated with the tremor and a tsunami that struck the East Coast of the country.
"The damage here is incredible," Welker said via e-mail earlier this week. "I spent 15 months in Iraq and never saw this much damage."
The sea water from the tsunami got to within 30 feet of Welker's rented home in Misawa. Houses and businesses around the city have been adversity affected by the tragic events.
Welker realizes he can go back to the security of his military base, where he can shelter himself from some of the devastation. However, he said he cannot ignore the suffering many in the country are enduring.
Instead of standing by and not getting involved, Welker has taken it upon himself to try and help.
"One of our closer cities, Hachinohe, was hit by a tsunami, and pretty badly damaged," said Welker, a 2005 Sherman Oaks Notre Dame graduate who played youth and travel soccer in Burbank. "That's where my unit, along with other Navy and Air Force personnel, have started helping."
Welker is asking anyone who has the means, from his hometown to other cities across California and the United States, to donate much-needed items to help aid the stricken people of the area in Japan. He has sent out e-mails pleading for help, and has even given out his personal military mailing address as a way to get the supplies to those who need assistance.
"What I have started asking for is unofficial," he said. "We have many Japanese ground self defense forces (Japanese Army) that are deploying to the most heavily hit places, and taking along all the Americans with special skills. I'm lucky enough to be at a military base which will provide me with what I need. But not everyone has the same access that I have.
"We plan on taking all that we receive and purchase and give it to the people from Sendai who have been evacuated to our base, to those who have been relocated, and to make sure that everyone is taken care of."
Welker said items that are most needed are things like juice, water, nonperishable foods (canned food, dehydrated food, anything that has a long shelf life), hand warmers, batteries, flashlights and other essential items.
Someone who has known Welker since he was young is Mike Kodama. Kodama, who coached the Burroughs High boys' soccer program fro more than two decades, said he is not surprised by Welker's call to action.
"He's just a great guy, and a very nice individual," Kodama said. "I coached him when he was about 12, and although he went to Notre Dame he has still kept in touch."
In the wake of the earthquake and tsunami, the Japanese people have also had to deal with radiation concerns from a crippled nuclear power plant. To make maters worse, some cities have gotten snow this week, and Welker said the temperatures have fallen to below freezing.
Through all the hardship, however, Welker said he has been taken aback by the resolve and positive outlook of those most affected.
"It's been incredible how well the Japanese have gone right to improving their situation together," he said. "They don't ask for help, they just help each other. It's truly inspiring how strong this culture is. The damage here is incredible…I can't explain enough how amazing it is to see the people of this country come together and look out for each other."
Welker said things have slowly started to get back to normal in certain parts of Japan. However, he added the rebuilding process is going to take some time and he realizes that people are going to continue to suffer in the coming weeks and mounts.
"Gasoline and kerosene are very scarce at the moment," he said. "Food and water are being rationed. It's worse for the Japanese than for us, we always have [military Meals Ready to Eat]."
Although he is just one person, Welker is doing his part to help as many people as he can, most of whom he doesn't even know.
"It's something I have to do," he said.
HOW TO HELP
LOOKING FOR DONATIONS: Sgt. Ryan Welker, who grew up in Burbank, is a member of the U.S. Army stationed in Japan. He is asking for items to be sent to the area that has been ravaged by an earthquake, a tsunami, as well as radiation fallout.
WHAT IS NEEDED: Juice, water, nonperishable foods (canned food, dehydrated food, anything that has a long shelf life), hand warmers, batteries (any and all kinds, including surefire batteries), flashlights, toiletries, warm clothes and any other essentials.
WHERE TO SEND: The Army postal service has special one-price rates, and individuals can pick up a box at most post offices. Boxes can be sent to: SGT Welker, Ryan, PSC 76 BOX 8519, APO, AP 96319-0064.