Mission Journal

His experience spans the globe from military operations to hundreds of rescue and recovery missions. They also include heartwarming humanitarian missions in places like Haiti, Nicaragua and Burma. In these videos David shares some of the most impactful life changing moments.

"It is all about loving, learning, listening, laughing and lifting those around us." - David

Japan earthquake and tsunami recovery mission

NOTE: This short story is sold on Amazon, but is posted here for you to read.

Click here to watch the video of this mission with actual on scene footage

Click here to listen to the podcast of this mission

They Story

This short story is about taking a risk to make a difference in the lives of complete strangers. This is for many a once in a lifetime opportunity to impact lives after a major disaster. For me it is one of many missions that involve a labor of loving and lifting by focusing at the very pointed end of the downtrodden souls who have been crushed by the weight of the earths heaving.

The Mission

Have you ever wanted to do something that made a difference? Did you? Was it worth the risks to your live, limbs and soul? Why did you go? Was it about YOU, or was it about people you do not know, in a land that is unfamiliar with dangers you are not even aware of?

The Tsunami

On March 11, 2011, the northeast coast of Japan was struck by a magnitude 9 earthquake, the strongest quake on record in Japan. The quake was followed by a record 120 foot high tsunami which devastated the northern coast of Japan and destroyed several nuclear reactors. Loss of life was estimated to be over 20,000.

The Dream

When I first heard of this new disaster, it was unbelievable to me that there was another epic event like Haiti in such a short period of time. It, like Haiti, was unprecedented in recorded history. Complicating the disaster were the five damaged nuclear power plants all located in the one coastal area called Fukushima. These reactors began to melt down and spew out radiation the likes of which at the time of this writing are still not completely known or acknowledged. After the world news and reporting of this enormous event, I had a dream. As I slept in my warm and comfortable bed, in my very safe community, my eyes were opened and I saw the disaster in vivid detail. I could see the carnage and the bodies being swept in and out with the tide. I could hear and see so clearly the women of Japan and their lamentation. I saw them weep with their hands over their faces and covering their mouths. I saw them cry deeply, but with a dignity reserved only for the Japanese culture. There was one particular detail in my dream that was so clear I could almost taste the salt in the air and feel the breeze on my face. A women in a white coat with a white surgical mask was walking toward me and bowing and thanking me in Japanese with “arigato, domo arigato” over and over again. The intense gratitude mixed with he lamentation was penetrating. This image would not leave my mind and was the catalyst for my decision to go and do. Witnessing this dream/reality broke my heart and, as I awoke to the reality of my personal comfort and peace, I knew I needed to get my gear and go to Japan; however, I also realized I did not really want to go. It was dangerous, would be expensive and the radiation had possible long term effects that I was aware of based on my time serving in Europe during the Cold War. In fact, I expressed my concerns many times to my closest friends. Nevertheless the dream was a reality to me and I knew personally and deeply that I needed to be there for some reason. In the end, I would go and do whatever I could, for as long as I could to ease the suffering of these people. The trip would be long and difficult. I would be completely alone, self-reliant, without the benefit of a friend, language skills or any formal resources to assist me on this mission. I would be required to, in a foreign land, where everyone was running away, forge a path into Tokyo and then beyond. I would need to get past police and military restrictions, and areas locked down because of looting. I would need to cross the broken rail lines, and forge through the hot radiation zone of Fukushima in order to get up north to the tsunami stricken areas and attempt to make a difference.


I served on a Search and Rescue Team in the Mount Rushmore Area in the 90’s, and had extensive experience in dealing with many types of trauma and technical rescue. Furthermore, I was a Dive Rescue International Public Safety SCUBA Instructor (PSSI) which validated that I had a strong comfort level in water environments. I have over a decade of honorable military service with much of it being unconventional. I am a successful business owner and operated a tactical gear company with a specialized training component for urban fighting. Combine this with being a certified body guard for high risk areas, and I'm a well rounded self-contained asset for a disaster zone.

Los Topos "the moles”

After landing in Tokyo and getting my 200 pounds of gear off the plane, I made my way to a hotel and began the process of finding a way up north. Politically, the Japanese government was not allowing anyone to help in the recovery work any longer. The recovery teams from England, Australia and the United States had been asked to leave after a few short days of very hard work. The Japanese Army was going to handle the task on its own. Arriving as these recovery teams were on their way out of the country did not bode well for my hopes to assist in stemming the flow of tears by the women of Japan.

I did not connect directly with Japanese emergency management channels as I normally would, because I believed that a one man rescue team was not all that appealing to the Japanese Government and, as they were clearly sending the other recovery teams home, I still wanted a mission. I figured I would be unconventional and get up north and then embed myself into some existing services. In my early focus to establish assets in country I came across a non-profit organization (NGO) doing relief work in the most severely stricken areas. Through a series of phone calls, emails and an iPhone translation tool, I was finally booked in a car going up north to the largest disaster zone, and the end point for the tsunami. My backup plan was a ticket on a bus that only went and returned once a week. This did not get me to the main disaster area, or link me to an "official" organization that was already plugged in. After many days in pulling every thread of potential, I ended up in a very small car with lots of gear heading through the melt down in Fukushima and the radiation. After working feverishly to find the right team and mode to get going on the work I found “LOS TOPOS” meaning “the moles”. These guys had done it all including 9/11 at the towers. We would become quick and life long mates through this ordeal and out lives were literally in each others hands. It is an amazing thing when complete strangers join together from uncommon cultures, backgrounds and social economic nuisances. The thread that binds you together is the desire to make a difference and not make it about you. This team “LOS TOPOS” was the real deal and full of love while working without purse or script. I owe my life to them and this experience would not have been possible without them seeing the possible fit with me in joining their recovery efforts. You can check them out on the web by googling their name.

Earthquakes and Radiation

During my time in Japan, in a single week, we experienced over 100 earthquakes and had various tsunami alerts. The radiation was of serious concern to all in Tokyo, and the U.S. Embassy was asking all U.S. personnel to take iodine pills and to leave Japan. I was on my way up north right through the middle of the five reactors melting down. As I travelled I monitored the radiation levels on a hand held meter. This meter measured the radiation levels all around me. My meter maxed out at about 50 kilometers from Fukushima, and stayed that way for several hours, and another 50 kilometers north of the reactors. While we traversed Fukushima I felt like I was literally in a microwave oven. I could feel the “baking” and was prayerful that my good intentions would inspire God to avert any long lasting effects of the radiation bath I was taking on the way north and as I returned back to Tokyo later.

On Mission

When I arrived in Sendai, we staged for a day and then started our journey north. The Mexico recovery team was coming up from a short rest in Tokyo, and was the last foreign team in Japan doing any recovery work. They were highly valued and still getting missions. Why they were allowed to stay in Japan when others were leaving is unknown to me, but the Non Government Organization (NGO) they were with had some hefty clout and spoke the language.

When the Mexico team meet me, they immediately adopted and titled me “Big Man” and made me a member of their team. They were intrigued by my story of coming alone and bartering my way up to the end point of the tsunami. They said that if I had that much drive to get here, working side by side with them would be easy. The leader of this group was a grey haired and kind eyed man named Chico. He had done recovery work with his team all over the world to include New York after 9/11, Indonesia and every other major disaster on the globe over the past decade. In a word, they were really good at finding and recovering bodies. They accepted me like one of their own, and we spent the better part of a week together performing the most distasteful of duties in a very forbidding environment. These good people had nothing but small backpacks and the cloths on their backs. They, however, were well equipped with faith and purpose. They were politically savvy with the Japanese and did well in inserting themselves on recovery missions. When they arrived in Sendai they were driving a little white van filled to the top with people and gear. It reminded me of growing up in Los Angeles County where the Latinos would fill their vehicles full of goods to sell and work feverishly to make ends meet. These folks had the same feel of family and purpose as those from my youth. When they drove up there were two of them on the top of all the gear lying prone with their backs to the van ceiling just so they could all fit. I smiled at this sight, and liked them from that moment because I knew they were unconventional and willing to do hard things in order to make a difference. They scrounged what they needed, were giving and kind to each other and most of all to me. They would literally save me from a structural collapse that crushed my chest over the coming days. I bonded quickly with these simple angels of mercy. We drew our first mission at the end point of the Tsunami where the wave entered the town at 500 feet above sea level. It was the town of Onagawa. I cannot tell you what the official death toll was in this little town that sits at the mouth of two points on the ocean, but I know that on our first day of recovery operations there we were told that four thousand people were still missing from the area. We were also told specifically that most were children and older people.

When a title wave hits a place the warnings sound and most people run to the hills to escape. Children and the old folks cannot run as fast and many are left behind to face the brunt of the might ocean and its fury. I have felt the power and fury of the ocean beginning in my youth near Manhattan Beach California near where I great up. As a you boy we would body surf, surf, snorkel and eventually SCUBA dive all of the coastline.

One of out favorite things as I got older in my late teens was to wait for the bad weather warnings from Mexico and anticipate the BIG WAVES that would surely come to our beaches. Of course the state would close the beaches and keep people out of the water, but for us young beach commandos we had other plans. We would put on a full body wet suit with our unlatching hood, gloves and booties and swim out to the big waves to get bounced and pounced over and over again until our breath was gone and we had tempted fate again and survived. We would eventually get worn out and bounce our way back into shore to warm up and head home. The life guards would patrol the coastline in their sand dune trucks and post the black flags which meant “beach closed”. Sometimes they would catch a glimpse of us out in these huge waves being pummeled and use their megaphones to call us in. They would ask “what in sam hell are you doing out here?” We would reply “Having fun!”.

It is at this point in the story that things get hard to articulate, especially in writing. With the absence of sight, sound, taste, touch and smell. It is simply impossible for me to give you any sense of the environment and scope of the tragedy. Next to an atomic bomb, which kills everything, the tsunami divides families, and some live while others die. All run for safety, but many are unable to get away in time and total destruction is the resulting aftermath of these horrific events. Everything they possessed is churned up by these massive waves and life and lives are buried and tangled in the refuse of a whole town or city.

During the recovery operations we found parts and pieces of people, toys, photos, lives and everything you can and cannot imagine in deep, thick, fish compressed mud and debris. It was as if I was able to look into the mingled and mangled lives of a people I never met who lived in the most beautiful little enclave of the world until the 3/11 disaster. From Nintendo parts to dead animals, tea sets to little Buddha statues. Dolls and more photos, day after day we looked and searched for remains and souls. This grinding work lasted from sun up to sunset. At the end of the day we were rewarded with a small rice ball with a little fish sauce inside. I ate it and was thankful for it. There was little food up north. I had packed in with my gear a simple military main course packet (the full rations were to large) so I could at least survive as needed for a few weeks on about 1200 calories a day. This supplement to my diet of a rice-ball and piece of fish was awesome!

At night we stayed in the gymnasium at the top of a mountain that was untouched by the wave and the quake. This mountain housed another nuclear power plant, and it was leaking radiation also... “wonderful” I thought. We lived next to this reactor, and slept gratefully on the wood floor of the gym in our sleeping bags. On the way up north there was lots of snow, which translated into cold and wet mud on the ground where we would work. My body heat was sapped from me as I would lay under buildings, structures and debris for hours at a time sifting through the world of chaos looking for any sign of life or remains. Bodies were still being recovered from the mountains surrounding the town as well as the town itself. We averaged 15-20 recoveries throughout the area each day. The white casualty tents at the adjacent high school stadium were full of documented and undocumented bodies. The casualty lists were posted on the wall of the stadium daily in the evening. When the new listed was posted people would flock to the walls to read the newly posted names. Many would openly weep and others would stare into the distance hoping for some news, any news. I would sit near this area in the evening and watch the folks seeking their loved ones. Perhaps I did this to remind me of maybe why I was here and to get the strength to go out another day and do it again. I spoke to many of the people and expressed love and concern as best I could with the language barrier. It was here that I heard of many dramatic stories in broken English and with some translation. Many such stories were of families running literally from the wave and looking back to see their family members consumed by the wave and disappear until we could find them. We could not seen to find them all as perhaps the ocean had taken them forever. Those we could we did. When we would find a body the process was very specific. We would stop touching the area and call for the Japanese military to come over to mark the location. A grave team would then come to exhume the body or bodies (often there would be multiple). Since they are mostly Buddhist there are ways in which they handle and prepare the bodies for the families and eventual burial. According to the Last Rites of Amitabha, the body of the deceased should not be touched, disturbed, or moved in any way because they believe the soul doesn't leave the body immediately after breathing stops. Therefor there were stick protocols in how this was accomplished. No worries here, I had bag my fair share of bodies already and the work to find them was grueling in and of itself.

One morning, we were gathered on the top of a road that took us on foot to the sea level recovery area. As we were ready to go down to ground zero, a 7.2 earthquake struck. The locals ran into doorways and stood with a genuine fear of terror on their faces. Any dignity previously perceived was gone as these people, who had suffered so much ran in fear of a repeat and more death. The earthquake lasted way too long and, to make matters worse, a tsunami alert was issued moments later. Chico our team leader considered the alert and decided we would descend to our area of operations with a plan to run to high ground should the new tsunami strike. I was not in favor of this plan but said nothing. I was not about to leave my new found friends, and if you worried about every alert you would never get anything done in Japan with dozens of earthquakes a week. The bottom line is that this was dangerous work all of the time no matter what you were doing. The alert turned out to be uneventful but the quakes continued throughout the day, and my stay in Japan.

The Children

One of the most bittersweet visions of the place were the few children mostly orphans who also lived at the gym where we stayed. constantly they would come over to me while I rested and look at me like I was from another planet, which I felt like I was. They did this most likely because of my 6 foot 3 inch frame, light hair and blue eyes. I got them to laugh allot in the evenings and enjoyed their beautiful faces completely.

There was one little fat Japanese kid who liked to stratal my belly and bounce on my gut so I made the sound of a creature dying Im sure. I would remove him and try and speak with him saying, “what is your name” in english only to get a big smile and him saying something in Japanese which mimicked bounce bounce bounce... ha ha ha. I was about ready to give up on the third or fourth night of ever having a conversation with any of these kids when the cutest little girl came over to my herd of children and smiled at me. I said what I normally said in broken Japanese “what is your name?”. She answered in perfect english, “Saito”. Thus became my Japanese lessons and final relief from the belly bouncing little samurai. These kids again grounded me on the mission to bring home their loved ones and do everything in my power to protect and love them. Then the next morning off to the recovery area under the direction of the Japanese army continue to search and recover.

Missing Father

On the second day we drew a specific mission involving a father. We searched a specific area for many hours and cleared the home where he was last seen that had been uprooted and moved hundreds of yards up into a canyon. I was the first one in the sub section of the house and began to clear the lower portions for bodies and debris. This house was of course was no longer on any foundation and tilted at a sever angle being mingled with huge piles of rubble. The method to search an area like this is called confined space rescue/recovery. The process is simple but effective. You displace the debris with your body like a gofer displaces dirt as he digs. The people behind you take the debris all the way out as you stabilize the place around you with shoring up materials pushed into you by the outside team. This is done to stabilize as much as you can your space in an active earthquake zone. At the end you end up with a small tunnel. It was here that I got a face and lung full of freon from a refrigerator as I moved it out of the way to search. My goggles had been pulled down to my neck during the tunneling, but I managed to close my eyes in time to avoid being blinded by the freon gas. I did however need to be evacuated from the confined space to get my breathing back. A little oxygen and I was back in looking for the good folks that were missing. During my time under the house, there would be the occasional aftershock. We did our best to continue to shore up things as I moved from one end to the other. This is not a perfect science and the environment by its very nature is primitive and punitive.

At one point, I managed to find a back pack in the clutter and had it brought out for identification. When the daughter saw this pack she lost it completely. She and the family cried as I had seen in my dream with their hands over their faces and covering their mouths. This time instead of waking up in a comfortable bed in a safe place in America, I walked over to the daughter and wrapped my arms around her and said nothing. I just held her while she wept for a very long time. The back pack was the one the father was wearing when they left him behind. Yes they had to leave him behind because he refused to run. He said he would be fine, refused to leave his home, and stayed in the basement when the water, mud and harsh reality of his decision was realized. Our team never found the man, but two months after I left he was found one mile away from the area we were searching. The water had stripped him naked, but he was in one piece. Closure had come to one family after an extensive and exhaustive search. Another part of the dream had become a reality. That day we found another body about 20 yards from where we had been working for two days. This man was wedged between two homes smashed together. Again protocol was followed. As I said earlier the recovery protocols were a relief to me as I had already filled my quota of body bags in the past.

Not A Scratch

One day I was under a house that we had reenforced as best we could so I could get underneath is massive weight to look for bodies. As I was inside edging in feet first while on my back the earth shook and the entire house slipped of the cribbing we had placed under the largest bean we could find and crushed my chest. As it hit me the wind was taken from my lungs and I felt the pressure on my heart. My head tilted instantly to the team outside a few feet away and they sprang into action. using pry-bars and large lumber beams they made a titter totter kind of wedge under the bean that had me pinned and lifted the house of my chest and pulled my out by my shirt.


Was this mission for the dead or for the living? Was it a journey for self or a place to follow in faith a prompting and make it a reality, open to the lessons that would be learned then and for years to come. There are countless other moments that were written to my soul during this week up north, but let me offer just a few that had a lasting effect on me personally. First of all, the scale of the destruction is again impossible to comprehend without seeing it first-hand. I saw phone video the day before I went to Onagawa, and it was shocking. It did not, however, have the impact of seeing it, and touching it like first hand experience did. Little towns were completely swept out to sea. They simply disappeared and all that remained were large piles of timber, mud and things. Cars were on top of five story buildings and the larger buildings were left in skeletal form. Trains were moved up into the mountains and standing on end. I heard story after story from the survivors, and tragedy after tragedy. The stories were nearly all related to people being washed away in front of their loved ones. At some point you have to switch off in order to cope with the scale and be functional.

One evening after a long day of recovery work, I sat in the entry way to the gym and must have looked the sight. I was alone because I do not speak much Spanish (remember I was with the Mexico team) and even less Japanese. I was staring at the white tents holding the bodies when a young preppy teen came up to me and offered me his rice treat. I had noticed him looking at me for some time, but I could tell he was skittish about making contact. I finally smiled at him and within a few minutes he came over to share his little meal with me. I thanked him profusely, but refused, tapping my tummy, and telling him I was full which was a lie. This young man who did not know me al all and had probably suffered great loss was willing to give this stranger his food because he knew I was there to help. He was in the spirit of giving to a stranger, reaching out to someone else alone and exhausted. His gesture touched my heart to its core, and I wondered what his story was with no way of ever finding out because of the language gap. On another occasion while I was up in Sendai waiting for the team to join me go to Onagawa, I was out in front of the apartment building sitting on my gear watching helicopters go overhead by the dozens. A little Japanese woman walked by and saw me with all my gear, and recognized my purpose. She walked up to me bowing again, and again with her white fishing hat on, and a white sanitary mask over her mouth saying, "arigato"-- “thank you” “thank you”-- over and over and over, again. She cried and bowed and repeated the process, draining tears. I gave her a big hug and said “your welcome”. They were so very grateful and gracious the entire time I was in country. This was my DREAM, this was the lady I saw with the white jacket and mask on. The locals were wearing these masks because of the devastation and smells. I new then again that my mission and choice was divine and inspired by the forces that know where and how we can best help one another.

The Living

While in Sendai I ran across two American boys who were in their early twenties, and looking for answers to life. They were curious about me and my mission. They were friends with each other and were assisting the Japanese with an NGO performing massage to trauma victims as a form of rehabilitation. We were staying at the same place overnight. They approached me individually while I sat on some stairs outside trying to get a signal on my phone. After talking with each of them I realized that they were both searching for self, and felt that running to a disaster zone would help them in their quest to become or understand something about themselves. I was perceptive to their thoughts and listened carefully. When they were finished speaking, I offered some simple, and pure council to each of them individually. I simply told them, individually, that they needed to go home, and reconcile their lives first. I told them that after they found inner peace their ability to help others would be increased a hundred fold. They asked me if I was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and I said yes with a smile. They, too, were members of this same church, and recognized some of my words as familiar. They were here for different reasons, but both were seeking answers in Japan.

During our conversations it became clear they did not want to be there, and were concerned about radiation, health and other realistic issues. While their main mission was to council the living, and help restore some hope to the needy, this was a tall order when you are empty inside, and lacking personal clarity. After we talked a calm spirit prevailed and, I expressed my love for them, and their desire to help. I told them to go home, and resolve to make right, whatever was wrong. To move forward in life with faith and hope, and become a beacon of light so others would be attracted to them. I pleasantly found out, after my journey up north, that they both returned to the States with dignity and purpose. One of them wrote me months after my return, and said he was enlisting in the United States Air Force to join the elite PARARESCUE. The other went home and reconciled with family.

Sometimes we may travel far distances and against significant odds to simply find ourselves in the presence of another human being who has been sent that very moment to intersect with your path. If we trust in being loving, kind yet honest we can effect for good the stranger that is now in front of us. I believe this with my whole soul and have witnessed it on every mission and often in my own back yard while at a store, eating lunch or simply getting a hair cut. These boys blessed my life and I theirs. Indeed the living was the purpose of this mission, and at the end of it the blessing.


My adventure in Japan was not about recovering the dead of Onagawa as expected. Even though I was there and did that, my trip to Japan was about the living. It was about the women needing comfort, and the children needing to laugh. It was about the hug to and from a grateful stranger, and the embrace of confidence, and hope to wavering young men of the same faith. It was about inspiring noble hearts, and communicating without a common language, and culture. It was about distance and proximity. It was about love, kindness and service. It was about returning with honor derived from a very private experience in a very forbidding landscape. It was about faith and hope and God above.

Perhaps the biggest lesson learned is that we do not need to travel thousands of miles to do good. We just simply need to look around us and find the person who is near us that needs a smily, a kind gesture or perhaps an affirmation of some sort. Moving our feet to do good is critical to lasting joy. This joy will often mitigate the tempest that comes from doing tough missions and dealing with death, injury and significant loss. If each of us decide this day that we will reach out and lift those nearest us, then the world be be a much better place for all of us. We must each remember to “switch on and do some good”.

David Burnell