Army Teams Leverage Diversity in Haiti
By Army Sgt. Tony Hawkins
Special to American Forces Press Service
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Feb. 22, 2010 U.S. special operations servicemembers used their diverse backgrounds and skill sets to help a nongovernmental organization deliver and set up nearly 100 tents for Haitian earthquake victims living in a camp here.
A civil affairs team sergeant from U.S. Army Special Operations Command places an identification bracelet on a Haitian man in a displacement camp in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, signifying he is to receive a new tent during a humanitarian aid distribution, Feb. 20, 2010. U.S. Army Photo by Sgt. Tony Hawkins
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The distribution was a joint operation between the 82nd Airborne Division, a U.S. Army Special Operations Command civil affairs team, and an organization named Shelter Box, which provided the tents that can house three to six people. Also included with the tents were blankets, a wood-burning stove, food, and a basic water purification system.
“Shelter Box and our team were able to distribute tents to most of the families that live here,” an Army civil affairs team leader said. “We’re making sure the ones we do have go to the neediest families first.”
The team leader, a captain, asked that he and his fellow soldiers not be identified by name for security reasons.
The captain explained that priority went to families with small children, the elderly, and any other families who didn’t have some kind of waterproofing, such as a large plastic tarp or a tin roof.
An operation such as this, involving several dozen soldiers and more than 100 Haiti residents, was enhanced by the special skills and talents exhibited by special operations servicemembers, officials said. One sergeant, a member of the civil affairs information support team, is a native Creole speaker.
“Every time I speak to someone I hear, ‘I knew you were one of us!’ or ‘Look, she even smiles like a Haitian,’” the sergeant said.
Noting that she was born in Haiti and moved to the United States at a young age, the sergeant said she is honored and humbled to return to her birthplace to help displaced people.
“It really hits a chord with me, because this could have been me or my family,” she said. “I’m so fortunate for having grown up in the U.S., but I’m thankful I get to come back here to help in any way possible.”
The abilities to speak the language and understand the local culture are invaluable skills that the sergeant said she gets plenty of opportunities to use during her current mission.
“I’m able to speak to people to provide them with information and instructions during the distributions,” she said. “People see me and recognize me as a Haitian, so it gets their attention. They feel comfortable talking to me, so I can find out their needs and relay them to the commander.”
Although she did provide some information to the members of the camp, most of the instructions were given to local people by a familiar face, the camp’s chief, with the sergeant in the background assisting him. The distribution of the tents went off without incident and in an orderly fashion.
During the distribution, medical personnel from a Latin-American nongovernmental organization arrived to provide treatment to the camp’s citizens. A civil affairs team staff sergeant who is a native of the Dominican Republic used his Spanish-language skills to coordinate operations between the organization and his team.
Haiti shares an island with the Dominican Republic, and the staff sergeant came back to Hispaniola with a working knowledge of the countries’ cultures.
“This is my island,” he said. “I know its history and understand the culture.”
By providing better shelter to the families in the camp, the civil affairs teams helped to shift some basic priorities for people in the camps, so that residents can receive other aid by nongovernmental organizations in the future, such as treatment from the Latin-American doctors. The doctors have a long-term plan for the camp that includes daily visits to treat illnesses or injuries while other organizations regularly supply the camp with food and clean water.
After several hours, the distribution was completed without complications. As the tents were distributed, and after a quick lesson from a few U.S. soldiers, Haitians began setting up the shelters on their own.
The delivery of improved shelters allows for a smooth transition of aid distribution for people living in the camp, which is now very close to being turned over to nongovernmental organizations for continued humanitarian assistance, officials said.
(Army Sgt. Tony Hawkins serves in the Joint Forces Special Operations Component Command public affairs office.)