It was her first tour with the United States Navy, and to describe it as exciting is putting it mildly.
During the past two years, Naval Intelligence Officer Aleksandra Natzke was stationed in Japan. There, she took a role in aiding Japanese citizens after the 2011 March earthquake, which devastated the northern part of the island and led to the crippling of a nuclear power plant.
She also helped Thailand citizens after a September flood destroyed numerous homes.
The 28 year old, whose parents, Herbert and Rosella, who live in Belen, provided tactical geographical intelligence to decision makers about the area the Navy was planning to delve into.
Natzke was stationed at a naval air facility in Atsugi, about one hour south of Tokyo, on Carrier Air Wing Five, which is one of the air wings that permanently deployed and served as a strike force when needed.
She joined the Navy in 2009, and volunteered to go to Japan.
“I really wanted to go overseas, and I wanted to go to Asia,” Natzke said. “I thought it might be interesting to do it for two years.”
For six months out of the year, Natzke’s air wing would deploy on an aircraft carrier. During that time, the carrier would travel with a strike group through the western Pacific Ocean to areas such as Singapore, South Korea, Australia, Philippines and Thailand.
“We would basically keep sea lanes open, making sure trade is going fine, serving as a monitor for all of those little countries and helping them out,” she said.
Along the way, the carrier would stop at numerous locations for sailors to take a short break from the ship for about four days or complete missions.
It was a Friday afternoon in March when Natzke was locking up the office to head home about 10 minutes from the naval air field when the earthquake hit.
As the ground violently shook, Natzke, along with other Naval seamen in her office, ran into the hallway where a security guard instructed them to go outside.
“I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh. That was a strong earthquake,’” she said.
Natzke rushed home to her apartment on the 10th floor, which she ran up to through the stairs since the elevators weren’t working, to find her books and drinking glasses littering the floor.
Although cell phone service was down for about a day after the quake, Natzke contacted friends and family through wireless Internet to let them know she was OK.
On the airfield, the earthquake left behind little destruction with most of the damage found in northern Japan. A tsunami hit Japan at full force not long after, washing away homes along the coast line.
“Where I was, we weren’t affected as bad as up in the north, and we weren’t by the shore,” she said.
But then came the after shocks.
“I was worried, ‘God is (the earthquake) going to happen again? What is this?’ And the after shocks kept coming.
“Every single day, the ground would start shaking. You would be sleeping and it would shake three or four or five times a day,” she said.
Natzke, who lived in San Francisco, Calif., before, said she experienced earthquakes on a smaller level, but the after shocks were what caught her off guard.
“I knew what an earthquake was, but I was quite frightened,” she said. “I didn’t expect all of those after shocks.”
The following day, Natzke learned her air wing would be delivering food and medical supplies to citizens in northern Japan. During a disaster, helicopters, which were a part of her air wing, are needed and used the most, since they can fly in and out of disaster areas to provide relief, she said. Natzke provided geographical maps and charts of the areas.
Natzke’s air wing provided assistance for two weeks, until it was deemed unsafe to continue to be at the air field with the radiation leaking out of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plants. All naval personnel were ordered to pack up their personal belongings and naval offices within 48 hours to be relocated to Guam.
“We didn’t know when we were going to come back because it was a major disaster with the earthquake, tsunami and radiation scare. It was quite frightening,” she said.
Natzke packed a large bag full of clothes and headed down to Guam, where she remained for a month before returning back to the air field. She was relieved when she found out she was being sent to Guam, because she knew that no matter what happened, the Navy would take care of her.
A few months later in September while in Thialand, Natzke had just come back to her hotel from a dinner with friends when she learned she needed to get back to the aircraft carrier within 24 hours.
The ship’s 5,000 sailors were taking a four-day break in Singapore when they learned they would be providing humanitarian assistance to flooding victims in Thailand.
She’d been keeping an eye on the September flooding in Thailand as part of her job, but didn’t know they would be helping out. For three weeks, Natzke’s air wing dropped food by helicopter to victims.
“The helicopters that were on our carrier and the other destroyers, they would be delivering food aid, patrolling the area, so I did a lot of custom charts and maps of Thailand to give them situational awareness,” she said.
From the carrier, Natzke could see Thailand in the distance, but wasn’t close enough to witness the destruction left behind from the flooding.
In Natzke’s downtime, she took tours around Japan, made Japanese friends and learned about the culture. She climbed Mount Fuji in 10 hours, went skiing in Nagano, toured the largest southern city of Osaka, the northern island of Hokkaido, and Kyoto, a city that has retained its original Japanese structure since it wasn’t bombed during World War II.
“I wish I had time to see even more,” she said.
But Natzke said two years was a good enough taste of the Asian culture. Now, she’s looking forward to her next tour in the states.
The next leg of Natzke’s naval career will take her to Washington, D.C., where she will be stationed at the Pentagon as a naval intelligence officer for three years.
“It was a good experience to have done, but I’m looking forward to a new chapter, too,” Natzke said.
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