BANDA ACEH, Indonesia – A delegation of seven U.S. congressmen, including Rep. Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland, visited Indonesia's tsunami-hit Aceh province (search) Saturday, meeting injured survivors in a field hospital and getting a firsthand look at the devastation.
Rep. Christopher Smith (search), a New Jersey Republican, said the biggest challenge facing the huge aid operation that's underway will be keeping up momentum after the initial emergency phase is over.
"We can't have compassion fatigue here," he told reporters at the airport in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital.
Rep. Jeff Flake (search), an Arizona Republican, said America's big role in the relief effort was bound to be good for U.S. ties with the world's most populous Muslim nation, where many were furious over the Iraq (search) war and America's image has sagged badly.
"I don't know how it could not" help the relationship, Flake said. "I saw Mormon missionaries and Muslims side by side unloading relief supplies. It's a sight to behold. These things will have a lasting impact."
American vessels, including the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (search), are a few miles off Aceh's coast, and Navy and Marine helicopter crews are flying aid to coastal villages.
The notion of American troops in Indonesia would have been unthinkable before the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami that killed more than 100,000 in Aceh and 150,000 around southern Asia and Africa. But so far the troops have been well received and Indonesians have expressed only gratitude for their presence.
Rep. Jim Leach, an Iowa Republican who chairs the House Foreign Relations Committee's Asian subcommittee, said it wasn't clear yet what the mission would mean for U.S.-Indonesia ties.
"The possible spillover is better relations. That would be wonderful, but this is more a people-to-people rather than a government-to-government effort."
The U.S. delegation also included Sen. John Corzine, a New Jersey Democrat; Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat on the Asian subcommittee; Gilchrest, a Maryland Republican; and Rep. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican.
The group flew from the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, to Medan in eastern Sumatra (search) and then helicoptered to the USS Abraham Lincoln before going to Banda Aceh.
Washington has pledged $350 million to help the dozen countries hit by the giant waves.