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Many of the grunts of the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines say they don’t know why they’re still trudging through the garbage-filled streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The severe poverty behind the filthy streets also has contributed to the instability the Marines are fighting against. Here, a Haitian man looks for clothes in a garbage pile.
Many of the grunts of the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines say they don’t know why they’re still trudging through the garbage-filled streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The severe poverty behind the filthy streets also has contributed to the instability the Marines are fighting against. Here, a Haitian man looks for clothes in a garbage pile. (Sandra Jontz / S&S)
Many of the grunts of the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines say they don’t know why they’re still trudging through the garbage-filled streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The severe poverty behind the filthy streets also has contributed to the instability the Marines are fighting against. Here, a Haitian man looks for clothes in a garbage pile.
Many of the grunts of the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines say they don’t know why they’re still trudging through the garbage-filled streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The severe poverty behind the filthy streets also has contributed to the instability the Marines are fighting against. Here, a Haitian man looks for clothes in a garbage pile. (Sandra Jontz / S&S)
One of the main missions of the Marines deployed to Haiti is to provide “presence patrols,” both on foot and in vehicles, through the nation’s streets. The patrols provide a constant reminder to the Haitian people that the Marines still are watching over their activities, in search of criminals, illegal weapons and drugs.
One of the main missions of the Marines deployed to Haiti is to provide “presence patrols,” both on foot and in vehicles, through the nation’s streets. The patrols provide a constant reminder to the Haitian people that the Marines still are watching over their activities, in search of criminals, illegal weapons and drugs. (Sandra Jontz / S&S)
Marine Brig. Gen. Ron Coleman, commander of Combined Joint Task Force-Haiti, said he does not subscribe to many Marines’ belief that their work is done in Haiti. However, Coleman says expects they will begin leaving after the original 90-day deployment deadline is reached.
Marine Brig. Gen. Ron Coleman, commander of Combined Joint Task Force-Haiti, said he does not subscribe to many Marines’ belief that their work is done in Haiti. However, Coleman says expects they will begin leaving after the original 90-day deployment deadline is reached. (Sandra Jontz / S&S)

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Out pounding the filthy streets of Haiti, U.S. Marines recite one question: “Why are we still here?”

Many of the grunts of the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines said in recent interviews that, for them, combat missions — and by extension the U.S. Marine Corps’ role in the poverty-stricken Caribbean nation — are over.

Leaders, from the top general to members of Congress, say that when looking at the big picture, the mission for the deployed Marines, now in their 58th day, might not be quite complete.

On Tuesday, several U.S. lawmakers sent a letter to President Bush asking him to extend the original 90-day deployment plans for U.S Marines in Haiti, deployed since Feb. 29.

In the letter, lead author U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., wrote of a recent a visit with Haitian President Boniface Alexandre and Prime Minister Gerard Latortue in which the collective expressed concern if the Marines pull out in a month’s time.

Progress since their arrival is obvious. Uniform-clad children attend schools daily. Marketplaces are abuzz during the day. Nightclubs blare Caribbean dance music at night.

But the progress “may be for nothing should the U.S. Marines currently on the ground there fully withdraw on June 1st,” Foley penned. “It is clear by our observations, and the pleas of both the President and the Prime Minister, that a reduced international force would revert Haiti back to a state of lawlessness and humanitarian crisis.

“All of us understand the need for U.S. troops in other theaters of operation in other parts of the world,” the letter continues. “However, we have a commitment and an opportunity to help the Haitian people establish a viable economy and an uncontested elected government once and for all. We therefore respectfully urge you to maintain a U.S. presence beyond the June 1st deadline for withdrawal.”

Some Marines from 3-8’s companies — interviewed before Foley’s letter — said they’re not advocating an abandonment of the Caribbean nation, ravaged by despair and poverty.

It’s just not their mission.

“We’re done here. They should let us go home,” said Cpl. Robert Kuykendall, 21. “Yeah, there are gunshots sometimes. But there are gunshots in any city back in the United States. You don’t see us patrolling those streets.”

“The first week or so, we had something to do,” said a 24-year-old sergeant who asked his name not be printed. “But now, it’s just one big training evolution, which I suppose is good if we’re going to Iraq in the [coming] months.”

The 3-8 was scheduled to deploy to Iraq later this summer. The Haiti mission bumped them from the current rotation.

Marine Brig. Gen. Ron Coleman, commander of Combined Joint Task Force-Haiti, said recently he was taken aback to hear Marines think it is mission accomplished in Haiti. “I’m surprised to hear it. I’m surprised to hear it. I don’t think we’re done here.”

It has been a delicate dance of politics, diplomacy, military operations and gaining the trust of the Haitian people. More to the point, it has been about getting them to trust their own police force.

“To me, and this is just Ron Coleman talking, the two key things are education and the Haiti National Police. We need to rebuild the Haitian National Police. I love Haitians. The Haitian people are hardworking people. They’re good people. They’re great people. They just need a change. They’re very proud people who have been beaten up and beaten down, but they still have a lot of pride.

“Will we make the 90-day mark? I believe that we will. If our mission is to calm the fears and facilitate for follow-on forces in the 90-day period, I think we’re well on our way today.

“There are weapons in Haiti. Will we get all the weapons? No. Can the U.N. peacekeeping forces coming in back of us, hopefully in larger numbers and staying for longer time? I don’t know that you’ll ever get all the illegal weapons, but we are trying.

“We need to get weapons off the street, that’s for sure. But that will take some time and effort.”

The U.S.-led contingency of coalition forces, which include Chileans, French and Canadians, are scheduled to hand over command of the peacekeeping force June 1 to the United Nations, with Brazil taking the lead.

In the meantime, the infantry Marines said they’re more like glorified cops. Their “presence patrols” are the countless hours of mounted and dismounted treks through sewage- and garbage-laden streets of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince.

But all tackle each mission with professionalism, searching suspect vehicles or homes, interviewing residents to glean intelligence that might lead to ridding the streets of weapons, drugs and criminals.

Often, they’re relegated to providing limited humanitarian aid: from distributing fresh drinking water from water bulls to corpsman treating myriad rashes, cuts or the occasional broken bone.

Marines play soccer or basketball with locals in an effort to forge relationships of trust and empowerment between the police, the gangs and the community.

The grunts aren’t complaining for sake of complaining, they said.

It’s harder when they don’t know why they’re gone, they said. It’s easier to accept why one Marine has missed seven of eight wedding anniversaries over the course of his career and why another missed all three birthdays of his 3-year-old son.

Numerous deployments now tapping forces Corps-wide have sapped many of their energy and of their desire, some said.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if you see a lot of guys, I mean a lot of guys, getting out when we get back,” the Marine sergeant said. “Does it affect morale? Yes. Absolutely. For now, we’re still focused here. We’re not walking around here like we’re pissed off. But we just want to know when we’re going home.”

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