Airborne Troops Expand Relief Efforts
By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Jan. 19, 2010 Even as thousands more show up daily for free food and water, the 82nd Airborne Division troops at their makeshift forward operating base here have begun to move out beyond its barriers to see how else they can help those still suffering from last week’s earthquake.
A soldier carries boxes of packaged meals toward the distribution point at the forward operating base set up by the 82nd Airborne Division's 1st Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jan. 18, 2010. The squadron passed out more than 15,000 bottles of water and 4,000 meals that day. DoD photo by Fred W. Baker III
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Helicopters arrive every morning, bringing more food and water to the base, run by the 1st Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment. Troops line the hill like ants from the landing zone down to the distribution point, carry cases and cases of water and meals.
The soldiers handed out twice as much yesterday as they did the day before – more than 15,000 bottles of water and 4,000 meals. But beyond ramping up the amount of water and food they are distributing, the leaders here have begun to look beyond their own perimeter, trying to figure out how to reach out to those who cannot make it to the base.
“We hope to get a good sense of where those people are who can’t get to us,” said Army Lt. Chris Anderson, the squadron’s intelligence officer. “That’s what we really want to get.”
Anderson’s team of intelligence gatherers began interviewing some of those coming through the distribution line yesterday. They want to find the ‘pockets’ of people in the city who need food, water and medical attention most. They also are gathering information on security concerns, possible medical and other resources in the community, and generally any information that will help local commanders paint a broader picture of the relief effort ahead of them.
This will help them determine when, where and how they push their relief efforts out, officials said.
“We have limited resources. We only have so much food, so much water,” Anderson said. “[The commanders must] make those hard decisions of who to give it to and how to get it to them. Every little bit [of intelligence] that we can give him gives him a better picture.”
The squadron’s medical professionals also began yesterday reaching out to those needing care. The handful of combat medics set up a makeshift trauma area and treated more than 50 people, mostly for cuts, bruises and broken bones. None were critically injured.
Because security for the relief effort is its primary mission, the squadron did not deploy with the resources to set up a field clinic. Still, the squadron commander has said he will do what he can for those who make it to the base.
Army Capt. Buddy Davis, the squadron’s physician assistant, called those he treated the “walking wounded.”
“Those who have been able to see me have been able to get to me,” he said. “They are saying that there are others still out there, and it’s my hope to find out where those pockets may be and to communicate them up.”
Davis yesterday began looking for medical resources in the community that may be able to accept critically injured patients, should the soldiers be able to transport them there. His first stop was the Baptist Haiti Mission, high atop the city. Its rooms were packed, and its hallways already were lined with patients.
“I initially thought as we walked in the door that this was a waste of our time,” Davis said. “But clearly, it’s not the sentiment shared by those in charge.” Surprisingly, the chief surgeon said he will take all the patients Davis can transport, as long as Davis can provide a place for them to go after surgery to heal. The hospital simply does not have the room for post-operative care.
That sent Davis a few miles down the road, staring out over the sloping hillsides looking for a helicopter landing zone, and to an abandoned school nearby that could be used to house soldiers and equipment and food and water for distribution.
The squadron wants to find and support local health-care agencies already providing care, Davis said.
“Today, it was ‘Lets get an idea of who’s sick and who’s hurt and where they can go and how we can help out,’” he said.
With the numbers of those gathering here for relief supplies growing every day, officials have started considering how to push their distribution efforts beyond the base. Estimates have as many as 20,000 people in the camp during the day, and 50,000 at night. The initial effort to distribute the food in the survival camp proved too chaotic, and ended with the soldiers having to retreat to the base for the distribution.
Squadron commanders met today with leaders of the survivor camp. Four local leaders have agreed to divide the camp into equal parts, with each assuming responsibility for distribution in their quadrant.
About a dozen soldiers went to a community center in the city yesterday delivering food and water, and others are out today surveying a handful of other sites to do the same.
“Word of mouth is getting out, and people know right now this is ‘the spot,’” said Army Maj. J.T. Eldridge, the squadron operations officer. “That’s why we’re looking at alternative sites. We want to make [more] spots.”
The squadron also is working with representatives of a few local nongovernmental organizations who arrived yesterday. Eldridge said the squadron eventually would like to drop back into solely a security role, ensuring that the relief is distributed to those who need it most.
“That’s the goal -- to go and establish these sites where we can go and drop these supplies, and the Haitian populace has a system in place with which to receive it and hand it out in an orderly fashion,” he said.
Army Capt. Jon Hartsock, C Troop commander, has managed the day-to-day distribution of the relief rations at the base. Putting local people in charge has been key to the peaceful distribution, he said.
Hartsock’s troops yesterday stopped wearing their weapons, and quickly put the Haitian volunteers in place to organize the efforts. A Haitian woman, though not from the local area, was chosen to select those from the crowd to receive food and water.
The bulk of his soldiers’ work now is carrying the massive amounts of relief from the landing zone to the distribution point. Along its perimeter, they are a presence to simply help in keeping the order.
“It’s their country. They know that we’re here to help. They know that we’re bringing the food in,” Hartsock said. “But any time you empower the local populace to help themselves, it only makes it better in the end.”
(Fred W. Baker III of American Forces Press Service is reporting and blogging about relief operations in Haiti. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)