The military didn’t begin arriving in Haiti in large numbers until days after the Jan. 12 earthquake, but when it did it brought an industrial operational capability and a logistical structure that turned a disjointed system into one capable of caring for thousands of victims.

The military didn’t begin arriving in Haiti in large numbers until days after the Jan. 12 earthquake, but when it did it brought an industrial operational capability and a logistical structure that turned a disjointed system into one capable of caring for thousands of victims. (Megan McCloskey/Stars and Stripes)

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake that devastated much of Haiti, aid groups from around the world lined up shipments of food, water and medical supplies.

They loaded cargo aircraft and ships and recruited volunteers to assist in the effort. Then they waited, even as televisions across the world flashed images of suffering and death.

The port was destroyed, and the tiny airport in the Haitian capital was quickly overwhelmed. Much of the aid that did touch down was stuck at the airport because aid groups lacked the ability to push it out to the people, to feed them and tend to their injuries.

It was days before the U.S. troops began arriving en masse, bringing with them an industrial operational capability and a logistical structure that turned a disjointed system into one capable of caring for thousands of victims. The sudden change, experts say, highlights just how critical military capabilities are in such massive relief missions.

The 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit deployed early, as did elements of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and a handful of Navy ships including the USNS Comfort hospital ship. The Air Force took over operations at the airport, and incoming flights increased from an average of 13 a day to more than 100.

The effort has not always been smooth, however. The aid group Doctors Without Borders has complained that flight scheduling forced some of its planes to land instead in the Dominican Republic and delayed the arrival of critical medical aid, which it says cost some patients their lives.

The military, however, says humanitarian flights get first priority and that only a handful of planes each day have been diverted.

Despite the criticism, the military’s ability to keep track of people, machinery and money is among its biggest assets, said retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, former head of U.S. Southern Command.

“That command-and-control capability, I don’t think exists in any NGO (non-governmental organization),” McCaffrey said.

And the military, more so than any single aid group, has the ability to deal with the sheer scope of the disaster, he said.

“There’s 200,000 dead, 250,000 injured, 2 million homeless, for God’s sake,” he said. “We’re talking about large muscle requirements, so the military comes in with power.”

But retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore said the U.S. government’s response to the earthquake could have been quicker if the military had been put in the lead instead of the United States Agency for International Development.

“The military has the capability to deploy anywhere, anytime. USAID does not,” said Honore, who led the U.S. military response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

He added that the military’s status as a command-based organization, one capable of issuing orders from the top down, makes it a more efficient model for leading the relief effort than USAID, which is focused on coordinating various aid groups.

As of Tuesday, two weeks after the earthquake, there were 4,700 troops on the ground, and 13,100 off shore. The Air Force has also been able to parachute food and water into Haiti, dropping more than 17,000 meals during one mission. U.S. ships off Haiti’s coast carry fuel for relief operations, meaning U.S. troops don’t have to tax the limited supplies in Port-au-Prince, said Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser, head of SOUTHCOM.

U.S. troops have also brought badly needed helicopters to get relief aid to distribution points quickly, and they have helped open Port-au-Prince’s port to additional ships, Fraser said.

“So it is all those capabilities working together that help us get as much support and aid support as quickly as we can to affect the people of Haiti while other aid organizations are able to grow their capacity and then continue that effort on into the future,” he said.

On the ground, the military also acts as a coordinator between the disparate aid groups, many of whom come with good intentions and considerable medical skill but little ability to communicate among each other or move victims beyond their own staging areas.

Once the USNS Comfort arrived off the coast, the aid doctors at the main hospital in Port-au-Prince had the most desperate cases plucked from their outdoor beds.

“Tell them they are going to a U.S. hospital boat,” one nurse instructed a Creole interpreter. “That they’ll be able to get what they need there.”

The patients were taken by military ambulance and then helicopter to the ship where they would receive the intensive surgeries they couldn’t get at the rudimentary hospital.

“Without the military we could do none of that,” said Paul Auerbach, a professor of surgery at Stanford who was working at the main hospital in Port-au-Prince, noting the doctors and nurses were grateful for the security the 82nd Airborne provided at the hospital. “Here the military is one of the great morale boosters. The only actual support system we have is military.”

The Comfort has been operating at full capacity and the military is now providing equipment to establish a 5,000 bed facility in Port-au-Prince, according to Army Lt. Gen. Ken Keen, head of the U.S. task force in Haiti. The facility would accommodate patients from the Comfort and others in need of post-surgical care.

Keen could not say how long it will take to build the hospital, which would be staffed by non-governmental organizations, but he said “seeds of that hospital” could be in place within the next week.

Col. Christopher Gibson, commander of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne, tagged two of his doctors to coordinate the medical care across the different aid groups. They are acting as a transition team to help get the neediest patients to the Comfort and field hospitals around the greater Port-au-Prince area.

“There are hospitals that are under-utilized. They are hungry for patients,” Lt. Col. Jozie Smarth said.

Smarth and Lt. Col. Robert Malsby, surgeon for 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, are acting as runners between organizations.

The main hospital was overwhelmed with patients, many of whom packed like sardines outside in tents made of sheets. The operating rooms were doing two, three surgeries at a time.

About 15 blocks away, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ facility was deserted in comparison.

“It’s been very, very slow here,” said Keith Lindsay, head of the operation there. “We’re trying to get the word out.”

“Oh, we can get you patients,” Malsby responded. “We can get you lots of patients.”

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