Hope and dread in Okinawa sailor's search for brother's body in Philippines

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  Navy Sr. Chief Vilma Rodriguez, a native of Tacloban, lost two family members in the wake of Super Typhoon Haiyan. She has returned to the city of Tacloban to assist with the relief efforts, and has been searching for her brother's body. Eric Guzman/Stars and Stripes
From Stripes.com
Navy Sr. Chief Vilma Rodriguez, a native of Tacloban, lost two family members in the wake of Super Typhoon Haiyan. She has returned to the city of Tacloban to assist with the relief efforts, and has been searching for her brother's body. Eric Guzman/Stars and Stripes

Hope and dread in Okinawa sailor's search for brother's body in Philippines

by: Ashley Rowland | .
Stars and Stripes | .
published: December 02, 2013

TACLOBAN, Philippines — With the main evacuation shelter in town filling up, Dominador Rodriguez urged neighbors to ride out the massive approaching storm in his two-story concrete house, thinking it was safer there than their smaller, less sturdy homes.
 
By the time Typhoon Haiyan hit, 60 people were inside.
 
Only 14 are believed to have survived.
 
“He really, truly thought that it would be safe, it would be good,” said his sister, Navy Sr. Chief Vilma Rodriguez. The Okinawa-based hospital corpsman, 36, has spent days in her hometown of Tacloban looking for her older brother’s body in the sea of rubble outside his house, hoping to find him while fearing she will.
 
“There’s still just a little hope in me and the rest of the family that he’s still there,” she said Friday night from the U.S. Marine camp near the Tacloban airport after returning from a second day of searching. “I haven’t accepted that (he may have died) yet.”
 
What happened to Dominador after Haiyan struck on Nov. 8 isn’t clear. One survivor told Rodriguez that the storm surge roared ashore, taller than his house, her brother was helping children climb to the rooftop so they wouldn’t drown.
 
A number of people who took shelter there are still missing. Among the known dead are a week-old baby, its mother and Rodriguez’ 24-year-old nephew, Eugene. Nobody claimed his body, and Eugene was buried in a mass grave the day before she arrived.
 
Born and raised on the outskirts of Tacloban, Rodriguez moved to the United States when she was 17 and joined the Navy a year later. Dominador — outgoing and protective of his sister — was the only one of her eight siblings who never left the Philippines.
 
At 54, he had become prosperous as owner of a welding business that made propellers for small fishing boats and was regarded as a community leader. He was also like a second father to Rodriguez, since their own father, a World War II veteran, had immigrated to the U.S. when she was young to gain U.S. citizenship.
 
“He took care of people,” she said of her brother.
 
After the typhoon, Rodriguez asked for emergency leave to search for her brother, but her request was denied. Instead, she was sent to Tacloban, the city hardest hit by the storm, with the U.S. Marines as part of the Operation Damayan relief effort.
 
After she arrived, she again sought permission to look for her brother. Her commanders, who hadn’t realized that Rodriguez’ brother was among the missing, agreed because they believed it was important for her to “get closure, so she could know his remains were taken care of,” said Col. Ed Bligh, head of Combat Logistics Regiment 3.
 
The Philippine government sent along a small group of soldiers to assist in the search. Rodriguez said they were the first responders to go to the area, about a 30-minute drive from the heart of Tacloban.
 
“Everybody in that neighborhood is grateful to have us there,” she said.
 
The frame of Dominador’s house remains standing though the structure is uninhabitable. The storm surge knocked out at least one wall and tore up portions of the floor. What’s left is surrounded by pieces of wood and metal, even a broken power pole.
 
If she leaves before Dominador’s body is found, another brother in San Diego plans to fly to Tacloban to continue the search. But she doesn’t want to leave and worries that the government will stop searching for him when she’s gone.
 
“I’m still in the military. I have to accept that we’re here with a mission, as a unit,” she said. “A personal agenda — you can’t have it.
 
“I’m just grateful I was given this time to look for my brother. If I have to go, I have to go.”
 
rowland.ashley@stripes.com