Beyond the Call of Duty
For Sarah O’Banion, life after graduation from SPU has been one adventure after the next. The Air Force first lieutenant has seen typhoons, earthquakes, all kinds of disasters. But nothing prepared her for the tsunami.
| Sarah O’Banion, right, stands with Diane Sawyer, co-host of ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
Sawyer was one of many journalists dispatched to Southeast Asia to cover the world’s largest
humanitarian relief effort.
Nevermind that O’Banion has a husband and infant son in her home base of Tokyo, Japan. When her commander called to tell her about an important disaster-response mission to Southeast
Asia, she didn’t hesitate. “Yes, sir,” she replied.
As the navigator in a C-130 squadron, O’Banion uses computer
and weather-radar monitors to guide pilots through dangerous
conditions. But in the air over Thailand, O’Banion could see the country’s devastation with her own eyes. “Look,” she said to the flight crew. They watched as miles of mud flowed recklessly
from land to ocean.
Stationed in Utaphao, Thailand, O’Banion and her squadron flew missions to Phuket and Banda Aceh, with stops in Jakarta and Bangkok for supplies. Their mission? To help deliver the United States’ $350 million in aid — water, food, supplies, and other necessities — to the people on the ground. “It’s not just cold, hard cash,” says O’Banion. “It’s relief effort, and it’s people.”
O’Banion, who says the local air officials weren’t prepared for such traffic on the runways and in the sky, saw many near collisions.
One day, she spotted a plane heading directly toward her C-130. “I see a plane coming,” she yelled through her headset to the pilot before her plane quickly descended. Hours later, on the runway, another plane almost landed on top of O’Banion’s plane, but quick thinking saved their lives.
It’s all to be expected, she says: “Working in a disaster zone requires some extra strength and stamina.” Staying up for 24–36 hours at a time is requirement No. 1. O’Banion woke up at 7 a.m., reported for duty at 8 a.m., and oftentimes waited a full 12 hours before her crew was dispatched and in the air. When her orders finally came in, she would fly until 3 or 4 a.m., head back to her hotel, and wake the next day to do it all over again.
“You lose track of time, and suddenly the only thing that’s important anymore is delivering supplies to these people,” says O’Banion. “It was hard, but that’s what kept us going.”
And when O’Banion heard that the tsunami death toll was rising, she thought of the children and of her own son at home. “There were so many babies and helpless children who died,”
she says. “I heard stories on the ground about how kids in Thailand
saw the water pull back from the shore. They tried to chase it. They were playing when they died.”
Throughout her mission, O’Banion tried not to let on, but she was dealing with her own personal tsunami. Her mother
was diagnosed with breast cancer 10 years ago, and while in Thailand, O’Banion received word from home that her mom’s health was declining. She asked her commander for family
medical leave. “We’ll do everything we can to get you out,”
he replied. O’Banion arrived at her mother’s bedside in Texas just in time to say goodbye.
How will she survive the storm in her own life? “I take comfort
in knowing that I was part of one of the biggest relief efforts in world history,” she says. On difficult days, her infant son, Ryan, keeps her spirits up. “He doesn’t understand that hundreds of thousands of people died in Southeast Asia, or even that his grandmother lost her fight with cancer,” she says. “He just smiles, and I smile back. After all, I’ve got to smile for my baby.”
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— BY SARAH JIO
— PHOTO COURTESY OF SARAH O'BANION
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