Lt. Birat Thapa couldn’t concentrate when he showed up for another day of work at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in late April.
His mind was 7,000 miles away with his friends and family in his home country of Nepal.
“I heard about the earthquake, and I was really sad to see all these people and videos from Nepal,” he said. “I didn’t feel like my head was at work at all.”
Thapa didn’t have to watch the disaster from afar for long. The Army sent him to Kathmandu in the first week of May, where he joined two U.S. Special Forces teams that were already in Nepal to help deliver assistance to earthquake victims.
On the ground, he became a link between American Green Berets and officials in the Nepalese military. It was a rewarding assignment for a soldier with ties to both countries.
“We helped them out in any way possible,” he said.
His trek also gave him a chance to visit his own family. He’d meet them after work as often as he could, spending time with his siblings, parents and grandparents.
Like many Nepalese, they lived in fear of daily aftershocks that rattled the country for a full month after the April 25 temblor that killed more than 8,000 people.
“People were afraid to go in two-story homes,” Thapa said.
Thapa, 28, is a junior-ranking officer in the 1st Special Forces Group’s headquarters at JBLM. The group has a battalion with a few hundred soldiers permanently stationed in Japan. Its soldiers are constantly linking up with U.S. allies in the Pacific region for joint exercises.
The teams had relationships and interpreters in Nepal, but Thapa gave them a young officer to build connections.
“They did not know the culture, the language and how everything works in Nepal,” he said.
Thapa enlisted in the Army six years ago while studying at a university in Nebraska. He became a U.S. citizen just after finishing basic training in 2008, he said.
He spent a few years in Hawaii with the 25th Infantry Division before completing a process to become an officer and moving to JBLM.
His time in Nepal left him feeling mixed emotions. He was glad to help and to reunite with his family, but he was startled by the scenes he witnessed.
He drove to hard-hit villages normally frequented by tourists and found young people begging for help.
Thapa is a practicing Hindu who spent a lot of time in his youth at Nepal’s religious temples. Seeing them toppled made him “very emotional,” he said.
The mission was also risky, particularly when trying to reach villages by helicopter. On May 12, six U.S. Marines and two Nepalese soldiers were killed in a helicopter accident while trying to provide disaster relief.
Thapa left the country on the day of that accident. He felt a magnitude 7.2 earthquake while waiting for his flight home.
“It was hard for me in there” because the aftershock reminded him that he had more work to do for his family.
There are no plans for him to return to Nepal on Army duty, but he will go back on his own at some point.