For Marines In Sri Lanka: Thanks

Harry Smith with Sri Lankan villagers from the village of Pittawella, Monday Jan. 10, 2005.
The U.S. military is running relief operations in the areas stricken by the tsunamis, and The Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith is in Sri Lanka, where he joined up with one battalion of Marines just outside of the coastal city of Galle.

At a staging area just up the coast from Galle, members of an engineering battalion based in Okinawa are more than ready to put their expertise to work.

"We have two main missions," explained Capt. Ted Veggeberg, a Marine combat engineer. "(First is) debris removal: clearing stuff out so they can start rebuilding their lives, and water purification. We have reverse osmosis: From just about any source, we can make clean water."

And there is plenty of work to do. On the southern coast of Sri Lanka, there is endless devastation, a mess the Marines are chomping at the bit to clean up.

What's it like for the Marines who are there? "It's great," Veggeberg replies. "It's what I became a combat engineering officer for, this type of stuff. It's nice to be the good guys. It's nice to come out here and help people. It's not all about combat, although we train for that as well. …It's rewarding. You can see it in their eyes. You can see it in their faces. They're glad we're here."

The Marines Smith was with have focused most of their attention on the village of Pittawella, home to few dozen houses on a spit of stunningly beautiful beach.

"I've seen a lot of East Asia," Veggeberg says. "It's sad. …I think probably the thing that hit me the most is when we were cleaning up the village, and you're seeing our buckets pick up the rubble of people's homes, and you see children's shoes, children's shorts, children's clothes. And I talked to the person who was in charge of the village and he said 13 people died, mainly elderly and children."

The Marines are doing what the villagers can't: using their heavy equipment to clear debris.

It's a "good guy" mission, Smith observes. Veggeberg says so many Marines volunteered, some had to be turned away: "They're fired up. There was no problem getting volunteers to come out here. Everybody wanted to go."

Smith says, "I think the thing that's hard to understand, until you see it with your own eyes, is just how unbelievably beautiful these places are. (The beach Smith was on) is magnificent. These little fishing villages have electricity, running water, they really carved out a pretty good life for themselves."

Mubashi's copy shop and Internet office was wiped out by the tsunami. He says the villagers are thankful for the Marines' help: "Actually, they appreciate it because it is an excellent job they are doing."

But, notes Smith, the villagers are also busy helping themselves. From houses they built with their own hands, they are salvaging whatever they can.

It's interesting, Smith says, that the people from the village are saving every little brick and block. They're working very hard, it seems.

Mubashi explains that, "Yes, they are poor people and mostly fishing people. They know the value of a single brick."

The Marines and the Sri Lankans are putting plenty of sweat equity into the recovery effort. Death washed in from the sea just two weeks ago, and all this hard work affirms that the living have a job to do: To rebuild. To go on.

"You can see mixed emotions on the faces of the people," Veggeberg says. "They're happy to see us, they're happy we're there to help them, but we're hauling away what used to be their homes and their lives. And I can kind of understand their mixed emotions on that."

A local man named Raja came looking for Smith with a message he wanted to send to America:

"I would say that it is a great thing for you to come and help us immediately. …We are very grateful to your country, your government, the people of the U.S. To the Sri Lankan people, you have come through as true friends. True friends."

Smith says the Marines are being acutely sensitive to the villagers' customs and religion, and offered one poignant example: "In that little village, it was so interesting. There are a lot of Buddhists in this part of the world. There was a Buddhist shrine. These guys were literally tiptoeing around this thing, showing such a tremendous sensitivity to the feelings of the local folks that it was impressive to watch."