The thump of helicopters and the roar of planes have never sounded so good to the residents of Aceh, the war-torn Indonesian province devastated by last week's earthquake and tsunami one-two punch. On hearing their noise, children run along dirt roads, waving up to the sky. Indonesian soldiers stand ready to spring into action. The Americans have come, bearing instant noodles, water, and other vital supplies.
Since the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln arrived off the coast of Sumatra, the US Navy has been flying dozens of Sea Hawk helicopter flights per day and carrying thousands of tons of assistance to remote areas otherwise unreachable because of wiped-out roads.
"I really, really appreciate the US coming because they help the Acehnese people," says Cutbang, a resident of Banda Aceh, who like many Indonesians goes by only one name. "They're not even sup- posed to do that. That's the job of the Indonesian military. But we see only others. We look in the sky and see only US planes, nothing else."
Despite the obvious goodwill generated by the American mission here, this is a delicate moment for the US relationship with Indonesia as well as the rest of the world. US military officials have a difficult task ahead: lending a strong helping hand while treading lightly within the world's most populous Muslim nation, where deadly terrorist attacks against US and other Western interests have occurred in recent years. They must also avoid upstaging the Indonesian military and the newly elected government.
"I appreciate the US coming very much because there's so much destruction in this town," says one military police officer in the capital. "I think it is very good provided they are here to do good and nothing else."
"I'm afraid some countries might take advantage of our situation right now," he says. "And it's not just me who thinks like this, it's everyone, even the government."
In public, the commander of the USS Abraham Lincoln and other military officials on the ground in Banda Aceh have insisted that the Indonesian military is in charge of the operation and that the massive US presence is "just about humans helping humans" - a sentiment that was echoed by Colin Powell upon arriving in Indonesia with Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Even down to the detail of who loads the US relief helicopters, there is a conscious effort to make this a joint mission. Boxes are passed like fire buckets down a line of men who are staggered by nationality: one Indonesian soldier, then one American.
So far there have been no open tensions between the US military and the country's newly elected government leaders or the Indonesian armed forces, which have historically wielded tremendous power and autonomy in the country. But in private, US military officials say the Indonesian military still shows signs of a deep suspicion of the American presence.
"We've gotten a lot of assistance from them so far," says Col. Dave Kelley of the US support group for Indonesia. "The guidance we've requested, they've quickly given it. We're still reestablishing bonds because we haven't worked with them in a while, but we've been given everything we've asked for so far."
The formerly close military ties of the US and Indonesia were restricted in the 1990s over concerns about Jakarta's human rights record. But Indonesia's early willingness to join the war on terror has resulted in some US funding once again for the country's military.
International aid workers are also treading carefully to avoid doing anything that might upset the military. Prior to the disaster, they were restricted from Aceh due to the government's military operation against separatists.
But traumatized people on the streets of Banda Aceh and in the remote areas, who often try to storm the helicopters for aid upon touching down, are open about their support for the arrival of any assistance from outside the country.
Their enthusiasm stems partly from desperation and partly from the distrust of the Indonesian military that still lingers after nearly three decades of separatist conflict. The conflict had intensified in the past couple years, leaving thousands of suspected fighters and civilians dead.
"I want the US soldiers to give us the supplies by themselves, not to the TNI [Indonesian armed forces]," says Idris Rusli, in a destroyed neighborhood of Banda Aceh. "They will sell it themselves because they are very bad.... I worry about that. I really, really worry about that."
Cognizant of these suspicions, the Indonesian government is also treading carefully. It is sending soldiers in to help, but keeping down their interaction with the population. The Indonesian military's public actions in Banda Aceh have been restricted largely to keeping security and helping to recover bodies.
On an aid delivery flight to Lamno and other remote areas along the west coast, the muddy grids of ocean-covered rice fields were visible, and water lines could be seen on mountain faces. Here, the TNI plays a larger role by securing areas before US forces land and helping to deliver aid.
Across the Indian Ocean, the US military's relief effort so far involves 20 ships, 90 helicopters, 29 planes, and some 13,000 personnel.
Todd Justin Matthews, from Jacksonville, Fla., a helicopter mechanic on the Lincoln feels good about his work. "I hope this changes people's perceptions of the US military. This shows how we're trying to help people and get them what they need to survive."