Despite their training and combat experience, the US marines working in tsunami-hit Sri Lanka admit that picking through the shattered remains of peoples’ lives has been a heart-rending exercise.
A few dozen of around 400 marines stationed in or off the southern city of Galle pick up brick after broken brick, the pieces left behind after the Asian tsunami ravaged the seaside village of Gintota.
Like survivors right across the three-quarters of Sri Lanka’s coastal belt obliterated by the December 26 tsunami, they use their hands — some gloved in black leather or khaki wool, others simply bare.
They toss what’s left of entire lifetimes into the mouths of camouflaged bulldozers, brought by the US military themselves, which then transfer the detritus into their dump trucks. Then it’s off to a makeshift tip.
"There was rubble everywhere. It was like the Twin Towers," in New York destroyed in the September 11, 2001 attacks says Private First Class Damon Carr, describing the scene when he arrived.
"I didn’t know where we were going to start from; everywhere you looked, there was rubble."
He found a photo album with a family snap of half a dozen people and says he handed it back to the mother pictured in it. She was the only one still alive.
"I almost cried," he says. "We’re marines, we’ve been trained, but I never thought I’d be standing here, picking up the pieces of someone’s whole life."
Sergeant Jarrod Birchler was also astounded at the scale of wreckage.
"It looks good now but when we came you couldn’t even drive a truck here. There were six houses standing and there were six with nothing but their foundations left," he says.
Those standing had to be demolished — except for a small structure that he thinks used to be somebody’s kitchen — and added to the metre-high rubble which has taken three full days to almost clear.
"It’s long, hard work," Birchler adds.
The area the marines have tackled is barely a dot on the map of Sri Lanka’s disaster zone, an indication of the enormous effort that will be needed to rebuild the South Asian country.
Amid the mess, the occasional piece of torn cloth — perhaps once someone’s dress — and pieces of household items still peak through.
Hospital Corpsman First Class Tim Dittlinger, who normally provides medical care to the marines from the 9th Engineers Support Battalion here, scrunches up a piece of material and tosses it into the bulldozer’s jaws as he admits it’s been tough.
"It’s been heartbreaking and gut-wrenching. It’s hard to come here and do what we’ve been doing, dumping what people have built up their whole lives," he says.
"Picking up people’s lives, it’s not what we’ve been expecting to do."
In small clusters around the periphery of the work site, curious Sri Lankans watch. G.V. Kellum, 41, who lost his father to the tsunami, solemnly observes as the remainder of his home gets tossed away.
"They’re helping, so that’s good," the labourer says, standing from a vantage point where he can also see the surf rolling in along the rubbish- and boat-strewn beach, an ever-present reminder of the tragedy.
Nearby G.V. Dayawathie rummages in the remains of her home, surrounded by a few relatives and neighbours, hoping to find some intact bricks that they might be able to re-use, while also keeping an eye on the marines at work.
"We are happy that they are coming to Sri Lanka for free to help us. We’re happy about them cleaning up," says the 33-year-old mother of four, whose father was also killed by the surging waters.
Her neighbour and nephew, Padme Talakkumara, 17, would like to talk to the marines but can’t speak English.
The marines say many Sri Lankans have been hesitant to approach, but some have cheerfully handed out sliced coconuts from the palms swaying overhead.
"Obviously, the machinery is intimidating — we’re intimidated by the machinery. They’ve been gracious, hospitable and yet wary," says Dittlinger.
"They’re glad we’re here, but at the same time, you can read the distress and the loss on their faces."
Corporal Ryan Zeiter, 24, drives one of the seven-tonne dump trucks.
Asked how he is coping emotionally, he says: "I’ve been to Iraq, I’m used to it. But it’s pretty sad to see some of these people who don’t have anything anymore."
The conditions he’s working under are however far better than in Iraq, he says, where he finished a tour a year ago.
"There you’ve got to be constantly looking around. There’s no trust. Here, I can leave my truck running without worrying it will get stolen. They seem like pretty honest people here."
Asked if anything stands out as being difficult, he shakes his head.
"No, it’s something we do. We’re marines, we’re here to help."