Patiently, US soldiers struggle to help Haiti rebuild

As US troops arrive in Haiti, they are feeling overwhelmed by the sense of need. But they are also gaining experience and learning how to manage the situation.

By , Staff writer

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    Members of the US Army's Delta Company, 173rd Cavalry, 82nd Airborne, unload boxes of food rations from a helicopter at a refugee camp in Port-au-Prince, Saturday.
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A paratrooper unit called the Green Falcons arrived at a basketball court atop a hill here to dispense food and water to a Haitian camp, but the men also carried with them the necessary amount of patience and restraint.

Both virtues are required in military operations here where the need is so great but the desperation makes distribution of the relief so difficult. Members of the unit learned this during their first drop of rations, when an orderly group of Haitians lined up for assistance mobbed their truck and the unit had to leave early.

Later, the men felt a mixture of pride and defeat, wishing they could do more, and frustrated that the crowd didn’t respond more positively.

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“The need seems like it exceeds our ability to get it out there,” said 1st Sgt. Robert Farnsworth, the company's enlisted leader, back at their own camp.

“We could do this 24 hours a day for the next six months and it wouldn’t be enough,” said Farnsworth. “It’s frustrating.”

The unit, Alpha Company, part of the 2nd Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, N.C., is part of a group of thousands of American military and US aid and relief workers trying to put Haiti together again after the devastating earthquake earlier this month. Many deployed at the last minute with little time to learn the culture or to plan how to conduct humanitarian relief operations.

The paratroopers had expected they would likely go to Afghanistan sometime this year or next to fight insurgents but now find themselves having to adapt quickly to operate in this poor, tropical country now dotted with encampments and despair.

If many Haitians had little to begin with, now they have even less. Living by their wits and an enduring resilience learned over years of adversity, they are hunting for food and planting sticks in soccer fields and tying bed linens to them as walls. There is little potable water, no jobs, and relief is sporadic.

One US Agency for International Development worker who has lived in the country for three years says that some encampments have received relief supplies three times while others have received none. Despite the hundreds of relief organizations, governments, and other groups here to help, the effort in many cases has not added up to a sum greater than its parts, the aid worker says.

“There is no coordination,” says Henriette Chamooillet, the top representative in Haiti for the World Health Organization, who oversees one of the largest stockpiles of medicine in the country.

An attempt at relief

It is into this kind of chaos that the Green Falcons have now been called upon to operate. They are assigned to a neighborhood in Port-au-Prince near the airport that isn’t the site of the worst devastation but has plenty of challenges.

On Friday, about 20 soldiers arrived in their only real vehicle, a big green dump truck filled with rations of packaged meals and water for about 800 people. They arrived early in the hope that they could attract little attention but distribute the relief efficiently.

The start was orderly, with Haitian men attempting to organize the crowd, putting children up front to get relief supplies first. But the truck was soon mobbed. Old women were pressed against young children, men screamed in Creole, and the crowd surged.

The spectacle attracted more people, and the field, which the day before was estimated to be the home for about 200 people, soon swelled to as many as 1,000.

“Get back, get back,” members of the Green Falcons warned the crowd, most of whom didn’t speak English. But it was of no use. The group of Haitians,
unable to push back because of the crowd behind them, got ever closer, the line broke down, and a few Haitians even jumped on the side of the
truck.

The soldiers, who by military doctrine carry weapons – though in a less-threatening “sling position” at their side – had to exhibit forbearance, handing out aid but nervous that a small riot was not out of the question.

Soon, Capt. Sean Shields, the company commander in charge of the operation, had to call it quits. One woman yelled in Creole-accented English, “it’s not fair” as the truck pushed through the crowd, and some of the soldiers left, angry that their first mission to help people clearly in need hadn’t gone better.

At a meeting afterward at their makeshift camp in an abandoned industrial park near the airport, the men expressed their frustration but vowed to do better the next time.

Shields, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, as well as the relief effort after hurricane Katrina, says next time they will bring more men to create a security barrier and maintain order, perhaps setting up several lines with rope or tape. They may even consider doing stealthy night drops in which they leave food and water supplies in needy neighborhoods and quickly leave before a crowd forms. And Shields will also hire a translator and attempt to bring other neighborhood leaders together to help do the next drop.

“I would like to empower the Haitians to provide the humanitarian assistance, and we’ll just be there to facilitate,” Shields says.

For now, they’ll do the best they can. Farnsworth said the next time will be better. “But for the first day, I’ll take it.”

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