U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Sam Wheeler discusses maritime operations with his counterpart Tentara Nasional Indonesia (TNI) Navy Capt. Edy Irawan during exercise Gema Bhakti. (U.S. Navy/Lt. Lenaya Rotklein)

JAKARTA, Indonesia - A 7.3 earthquake hits an island in Southeast Asia. The death toll climbs by the second. Local police and military have suffered significant losses. There is mass chaos as buildings continue to collapse like dominoes as aftershocks surprise those attempting to render aid. Displaced victims mourn the loss of family members and the place they once called "home." Airport operations are at a halt. The host nation is overwhelmed by response efforts and has requested help from the U.S. and Indonesia.

This is the scenario service members from the U.S. and Indonesia are asked to tackle during joint, bilateral exercise Gema Bhakti in Jakarta, Indonesia. Gema Bhakti is a ten-day exercise, occurring Sept. 14-23, designed to lead participants through operational-level planning for a simulated earthquake in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.

Natural disasters are known to strike at any given moment with little to no notice. Southeast Asian countries have become all too familiar with the tragic aftermath as they are susceptible to weather-related disasters, erupting volcanoes, flooding, tsunamis, landslides and earthquakes. U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Sam Wheeler and Tentara Nasional Indonesia Navy Capt. Edy Irawan met during the Gema Bhakti opening ceremony and face the complicated task of planning a humanitarian assistance disaster relief response to the notional affected island.

“We are both naval officers which gives us a common starting point for planning,” said Wheeler. “We have been exchanging information about our unique capabilities and how we would conduct operations during a multinational response.”

Wheeler, a native of Athens, Georgia, is a helicopter pilot participating as a maritime operations planner in Gema Bhakti. Wheeler recognizes his unit could be tasked to conduct a HA/DR response without advance notice as the U.S. Navy continues to deploy around the world and may be the first unit on scene that can render assistance.

Capt. Edy Irawan, TNI Navy maritime operations planner, has already been a part of a myriad of relief response missions. Most recently, he assisted in search and recovery operations when the Indonesian island, Banda Aceh was stricken by a tsunami after an earthquake in the Indian Ocean Dec. 26, 2004. He also was part of the HA/DR efforts after a deadly earthquake hit the Indonesian island Sumatra in 2009. He, too, recognizes the necessity to prepare for the unexpected crises that may arise.

“I’m so happy to have met many friends and added to my experience,” said Irawan through a translator. “I’m proud to be a part of this exercise with the American Navy- we are part of a brotherhood at sea.”

These two sailors, who call different cities across the Pacific home, have formed a long-lasting friendship.

Out of necessity, Indonesia has become a subject matter expert in responding to natural disasters within the country. TNI service members are hoping to extend their expertise to other nations that may be affected in the future and be able to operate within a multinational response effort.

“I am really fortunate to have met Irawan,” said Wheeler. “He has vast experience in responding to natural disasters, and I have really learned a lot.”

“It has been my honor,” said Irawan. “I’ve had the privilege of encountering a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier when I’ve been at sea and I participated in the exercise, Rim of the Pacific in 2014, so I am familiar with working with my U.S. Navy counterparts.”

“I have learned a lot from [Wheeler] and there may be a time when we’re passing and we can rely on each other for help if we are in need.”

At the end of the exercise, all participants will have an understanding of how to coordinate military capabilities with other government and non-governmental organizations. They will also be familiar with working in a multinational environment and they will have completed planning for an HADR response in accordance with international disaster response practices.

“Though I hope to encounter [Irawan] during a port call rather than a crisis response, I know if we do, we now have a familiarity with the way the other will operate and we’ll be able to complete the mission,” concluded Wheeler.

Gema Bhakti, Indonesian for ‘Echo of Good Deeds,’ is Indonesia’s sole joint exercise and is designed to promote positive military relations, increase cultural awareness and enhance training and understanding of each other’s capabilities in a HA/DR event. Exercises like Gema Bhakti cultivate civil-military cooperation, emergency preparedness, and enhanced response capabilities.