During my time in the Navy I saw many things but the two events I'm about to write about made me feel the most helpless I've ever felt in my life.
September 1994: while stationed aboard the USS Conolly (DD979) we were the first American ship to sail to Haiti after the riot on the pier that turned the Harlan County away. We took up station between 1 and 3 miles off the coast and sailed our 'line'. We were showing our 'presence' there during a time of great unrest in that country.
One night during the mid-watch, 2200-0600 (10pm -6am) at approx 0230 we observed whole city blocks going dark. Entire light grids were being turned off and people were being attacked in their homes and on the streets.
I was on watch on the bridge and as I looked shoreward I saw 3 'beams' of light go streaking up into the air. I asked, "What was that, but no one else had seen anything." I blew it off as maybe seeing things until we heard the news reports from the island from the overnight hours... Many people had been beaten for their opposition to the government, 3 had been killed (2 men 1 woman). The woman had been placed into a pile of old tires and the tires were then lit on fire.
I (we) sat there unable to do anything but patrol as per our orders. I know what I saw that evening was the souls of those who had been killed passing on to a better place.
April 1999: Stationed aboard the USS Laboon (DDG 58) the ship had just completed 5inch gun qualifications on the firing range in Puerto Rico - Vieques Island. We had just cleared the range and could hear the calls on the radio to the two incoming jets as they made their approach on their first bombing run. Then we switched off the firing control frequency and were headed out to sea.
I headed up to the bridge wing for some fresh air after a long time on watch for the gun qualification. As I watched the island growing smaller, we received a frantic call on the Main Range frequency. The site was requesting help, something had gone wrong and one of the 500 lb bombs from the aircraft had struck off range and had exploded. It was requested that we contact Roosevelt Rhodes, Puerto Rico (the main base) because the main building at the Range had been damaged and they were unable to do so.
The next transmission was not as 'sure' of it self. The man on the radio babbled about broken windows and wind blowing through the building. (Not a proper transmission) The next transmission was the same voice, firm and in control, "___ this is ____ Have an ambulance sent, we have a guard down in need of assistance, his leg is injured. Over."
Then another transmission, same voice, no call signs and 'distant' sounding, "I hope someone on the ambulance has a smoke, I can't find mine."
After a couple of minutes the same voice, this time strong and in control, "___ this is ____ have the ambulance approach from the east side of the building, I repeat approach from the east side we have a fire on the west side of the building and it's approaching the generator shack, Over."
We of course relayed everything we were hearing to Roosevelt Rhodes. Then the voice came again, "I... I think we have lost the guard... My ears are bleeding, where's my smokes..." I looked up from where I was copying the R/T net and looked back to the top of the island, where we knew the Range Building to be, but you could not see it from seaward. I saw a brilliant white light go shooting up into the sky. I didn't question what I saw. I offered a prayer for the guard and his Family for their loss. I knew what I had just seen.
As soon as we had heard the first transmissions the Captain had turned the ship around and headed back towards the range. Had we been a different class ship we would have had a Helicopter detachment on board and could have flown aid in from the ship, as it was I think our Captain considered beaching the ship (would have had he thought it would have helped) to help in a more productive manner than just relaying radio transmissions.
I know what I saw in April 1999, and I'm pretty sure of what I saw in September 1994. The worst part was being unable to do anything, ANYTHING, but offer prayers to those being effected by all the chaos going on during these events.