Troops Set Up Front Lines for Survival in Haiti
By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Jan. 17, 2010 As the sun rises over the sweeping palms here, not much is certain about Army Lt. Col. Mike Foster’s day.
Army Spc. Brent Nailor of the 82nd Airborne Division’s 1st Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, passes out packaged meals to women and children in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jan. 16, 2010. The squadron established a forward operating base at an abandoned and damaged country club near the U.S. embassy. A survivor camp of thousands is situated near the base. DoD photo by Fred W. Baker III
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
But one thing that is certain is that a hundred yards or so away, down a slope lined by a narrow, worn footpath, are thousands of earthquake survivors who will look to him and his troops for the basics of their survival.
Some nongovernmental estimates say about 50,000 Haitians sleep at night at the foot of this country club and golf course estate that the 82nd Airborne Division’s 1st Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, now calls home.
The scene would be spectacular, with sweeping views of the city to the east and the coastal sea to the west, but to the north are some of those hit hardest by last week’s earthquake. And many of those left homeless now are gathered at the bottom of Foster’s hill, waiting for help.
“I don’t know how the day’s going to shape up,” Foster said. “I know that we’re going to be busy. I know that we’re going to work real hard, and I’m confident that at the end of the day when the sun goes down, we will have made a difference.”
Foster and his squadron of about 300 soldiers have been on the ground less than two days and already have passed out thousands of meals and bottles of water to the Haitians. At the same time, they’re fortifying the abandoned and damaged estate into a military forward operating base.
Helicopters land constantly through the day on an open, grassy spot on the hill, dumping more troops and supplies from their bellies. Soldiers outline the perimeter. A gym becomes a sleeping area. The racquetball courts store troops’ equipment. The swimming pool is lined with rucksacks.
Yesterday, the troops made their initial aid drop. They tried at first to move into the survivor camp to deliver the food, but the handful of troops, led by Foster, quickly became engulfed in a sea of screaming survivors. At the sight of some relief, the crowd became excited, and it was clear that the food could not be passed out in the camp. The troops were forced to retreat up the hill, behind their makeshift perimeter lined with white plastic lawn chairs.
Despite the initial chaos of the event, Foster called it a success. Haitian volunteers came forward to organize the distribution and to help in providing security.
“They were ones who got all of the kids up the hill and brought them first, not us. I think that’s an enormously positive step,” Foster said. “The handful of times you may have seen a guy or two want to get rowdy, they policed those guys up themselves. I think that is very, very important to how this continues to flow.”
While the soldiers may be on the front line of the fight for survival, their first mission is to provide security and help to pave the way for the tremendous amount of humanitarian aid waiting to be pushed forward by organizations around the globe. So as some passed out meals, other troops started today interviewing local people, helping to identify their needs, surveying the area and feeding information back to higher headquarters that senior officials will need to know to increase the amount of relief in this area.
And with every helicopter that lands comes more troops, more meals and more water.
“We never look away from one [mission] just to do the other,” Foster said. “With the assets and capabilities I have right now, I ask myself ‘Where can I make the most good?’ We’re going to take every advantage of every opportunity we can to put aid and relief and supplies on anything that’s coming in.
“At the end of the day, the intent is to get relief to the Haitian people,” he said.
The need ranges from those who hardly were affected to those whose lives were devastated. Some already have received aid, others have not. Officials have to identify those who need the aid most and get it to them first, Foster said.
“You don’t want to turn it into a ‘survival of the fittest,’ where you find a place that’s easy to drop off supplies so you just continue to drop them off there,” he said. “The rich in aid get richer. That’s going to take some time to fully understand.”
Medics also were out helping the injured today. One small boy came forward with his head severely bandaged. The Army medic worked to remove the crusted bandage to reveal the boy’s scarred head. The wounds were several, but healing.
“Tell the boy he is handsome, and will be just fine,” the medical told the interpreter.
Today’s distribution went much smoother, with the lines less pushed, and flowing more evenly. It appeared, officials said, that the Haitians realized the troops were here to stay, and that if they cooperated, more aid will come.
Much of the calm also can be attributed to the manner in which the soldiers take on their security duties. The security is far from heavy-handed. The leaders here have said they see no threat from the local people, and they try to project that in their presence. Today, the soldiers were told to sling their rifles across their back, rather than holding them in the ready front position as is customary for most of these battle-hardened soldiers.
Also, no orders are barked. Men are referred to as “Sir,” and the women as “Ma’am.”
Yesterday, when the crowd became rowdy and tried to push forward, the captain in charge told his troops simply to sit down in the grass and stop passing out the meals. This quieted the crowd, which quickly realized that if they did not calm down, they would not any rations.
“Our guys bring a lot of experience in different kinds of operations, so they know when they need to be more aggressive or have different kind of approach to bring some calm to the group,” said Army Maj. J.T. Eldridge, the squadron operations officer.
“I think the most important thing is to present that sense of calm -- the sense that we’re here to help and we’re going to continue to help,” he said.
In the days after the quake, violence in some areas has impeded such U.S. military relief efforts, Army Lt. Gen. P.K. “Ken” Keen said. Keen, the top military commander in Haiti, toured the operating base today, surveying the layout.
“Security is a fundamental part of humanitarian assistance. You have to have a safe and secure environment in order to be successful,” Keen said.
The general was in Haiti when the earthquake hit. He was visiting the ambassador’s house, he said. “It seemed like it would never stop, and you could immediately tell this was going to be a major challenge,” he said.
The general and the ambassador made their way out of the home, and from their vantage point saw the first glimpse of the damage left in its wake.
“We could see across the city and hear the screams and we could tell from all the dust that this was a tremendous tragedy,” he said.
Keen said he called officials at U.S. Southern Command right then to ask for all the help they could deliver. The USS Carl Vinson turned around immediately, making its way toward Haiti.
Keen said he feels and understands the frustration of those who want more aid now.
“Ideally, when daylight came up, we would have been doing this,” Keen said referring to the soldiers handing out water. “But this had to come from all over the world.”
Still, with three other such distribution sites set up across the city, Keen said, what these soldiers are doing is a perfect example of more to come.
“I am satisfied that we are doing everything we can to get the supplies here as fast as we can and getting them to the people,” he said. “I’m satisfied that we’re doing everything that we can.”