After storm, servicemembers from Haiti volunteered to help
By DIANNA CAHN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 17, 2016
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Vladimir Massillon was in college in the U.S. In 2010 when a powerful earthquake struck this place where he was born.
His mother was safe. But one of his cousins had been standing outside his home in the capital with his wife and two of his six children when the quake struck, collapsing the house and killing their four children inside – just beyond their reach.
Massillon, 29, who was born in the U.S. to Haitian parents but grew up in Haiti, watched from afar as the U.S. military helped his homeland and it left an impact on him. “They were helping a lot of people and really enjoying what they were doing,” he said.
A year later, he joined the U.S. Navy.
Two weeks ago, as Hurricane Matthew tore its way through the Caribbean and up the coast of Florida, Massillon made sure his wife and two children were safely evacuated from their home in Jacksonville. Then he joined the military relief effort in Port-au-Prince, part of a small cadre of Haitian servicemembers who volunteered to help.
Massillon has remained in the capital, his language skills needed to translate conversations between military and Navy officials. It isn’t high profile work, but he is satisfied knowing he was here, helping, he said.
“No matter where I go or what I do, I think this is going to be the highlight of my career,” he said. “Because I was able to help the country that molded me into the person with the values I have today. Just to be able to be part of this effort made my day.”
Since days after the Oct. 4 hurricane hit Haiti, the U.S. military has been operating an emergency response mission out of the international airport in Port-au-Prince, using its helicopters and logistics to help ferry U.S. Agency for International Development relief supplies to the hardest hit parts of the country.
In that time, the operations involving all four branches of the U.S. military have flown 212 hours and delivered more than 507,000 pounds of supplies to the stricken southwest peninsula, where Hurricane Matthew cleared miles of trees, flooded roads, destroyed homes and left 1.4 million people in need of assistance.
As those efforts wind down and the military shifts the remainder of its relief mission to a Navy ship offshore, Haitian servicemembers reflected on what it meant to them to be part of the response in a country so close to their hearts.
Staff Sgt. Vladimir Dorcelus, 35, a Marine reservist in the Combat Logistics Battalion 23, was born in Florida, but raised in Haiti. His language skills were also needed in Port-au-Prince, but he went on one delivery flight to the fingertip of the southwest peninsula. Seeing the destruction was hard.
“It was actually devastating just looking at it,” he said. “You feel so bad. At the same time, it was refreshing, because the people were so happy. It made me feel better. It made me not take anything for granted.”
That’s the thing about Haiti, he said. Even after two natural disasters in six years, people are always laughing and smiling. “That’s how most of us cope.”
Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Dinel Mesadieu was a young sailor in 2010, when the earthquake struck.
His was one of the first units in country and the devastation was oppressive, he said. Buildings were crumbling and people were afraid to go inside. The computer technician helped the medics, translating as needed, and transporting the worst cases to the Navy medical ship that was nearby. He even helped deliver a baby.
It was the most fulfilling mission he’s ever been on.
This time, Mesadieu, 27, who was born in the United States to Haitian parents, returned to help with the Hurricane Matthew relief effort. While the devastation is not as widespread – the capital was barely affected – the mission was in some ways more difficult. He, too, remained in the capital to translate – far from where the hurricane struck.
He knew he was helping, but the results were difficult to see – until this weekend, when Mesadieu got to hop on an Army Black Hawk delivering rice to the hard-hit village of Abricot.
“I got to see the relief on their faces,” he said. “The effort that we are all doing here – I got to see the result of it. It helps motivate you more to think you are doing something significant.”
Dorcelus acknowledged the difficulty of not being closer to the crisis. But as much as he loves this country, he’s still a U.S. Marine.
‘I was needed to translate,” Dorcelus said. “Marines and the military -- the mission comes first. That’s the way I take it.
“I helped a little bit,” he added. “I put a smile on somebody’s face. It’s worth more than anything else out there.”
Staff Sgt. Vladimir Dorcelus, left, a cook in the reserve Marine Combat Logistics Battalion 23, talks with fellow Haitian, Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Vladimir Massillon, a database manager based in Jacksonville, Fl. Both men grew up in Haiti and volunteered to assist in the Haiti hurricane relief mission.
DIANNA CAHN/STARS AND STRIPES