Trained for war, troops find a different mission in Haiti

Staff Sgt. James Gresham, Company C, 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, struck up a conversation with a few Haitians outside the main hospital in Port-au-Prince and immediately was surrounded. “I wish I could speak Creole, so I could speak to more of them,” he said.


By MEGAN MCCLOSKEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 30, 2010

CITE SOLEIL, HAITI — Were this any other deployment, as the convoy worked its way down narrow, smoke-filled streets, Army medic Spc. Willie Green would be clenched in the back of the Humvee, praying no one got hurt but just the same reciting medical procedure over and over in his head.

Downrange is a world where you “prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” Green said. “It’s gonna happen. You’ve got to anticipate. You’re out there and they want you dead just as much as you want to return the favor.”

In this densely-packed, rough-and-tumble neighborhood, the pungent smell and the milling crowds are familiar. So are the burning trash, the feral dogs and the waving children chasing the convoy.

But in Haiti the 6,000 troops on the ground aren’t seeking out an enemy. They are helpers rather than aggressors.

“Everywhere I go, I get welcomed with open arms,” said Lt. Gen. Ken Keen, head of Task Force Haiti. “We’re here by invitation.”

Before leaving Fort Bragg, N.C., one company commander with the 82nd Airborne Division stood on a bench near the flight line and told his soldiers: “The No. 1 thing I want you to understand is we are going to Haiti to help people.”

“We’re not going for gunfights,” Capt. Andrew Salmo said he told his men. “Knocking heads together ain’t going to help them.”

For the battle-hardened noncommissioned officers, it’s a steep change of pace.

Staff Sgt. James Gresham, a veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, said he initially felt uncomfortable without his body armor.

“To come here and be in a very relaxed security posture, not having to roll around looking for IEDs or worry about suicide bombers and that kind of stuff, it’s a pretty big switch for us,” he said.

But when the crowds start swarming, old instincts kick in.

“The ones with combat experience want to be a little more aggressive,” said 1st Sgt. Vaughn Overton of Company C.

Overall though, there is a surprising lack of combat patches on the arms of the soldiers in Haiti with the 82nd Airborne. For some companies, 70 percent are on their first deployment.

“This is an eye-opener for a lot of them,” Overton said.

The 82nd Airborne Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team, to which they belong, is the military’s Global Response Force, ready to react to a disaster anywhere in the world with boots on the ground in less than 96 hours.

Lt. Col. Pat Hynes, commander of 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry, said being a part of such a unit comes with mixed feelings since it has meant “being home for a while.”

“The soldiers are watching those on their left and right deploying, and they want to go. They want to contribute,” he said.

Most of the lieutenants are still waiting for their chance to lead in war.

“I can see this look in their eyes,” Salmo said. “They think they’re missing something. I tell them: ‘What you’re doing here, it’s a great experience.’”

Predawn on a recent morning, the soldiers walked the streets of Cite Soleil, a neighborhood of about 250,000 packed into four-square-kilometers of tin-roofed shacks and makeshift tents. Their weapons hung loosely in front of them. The mission was to distribute thousands of bottles of water and food rations. The grateful Haitians, quickly and without complaint, followed all instructions given over a bullhorn by translators.

Unpacking high-energy biscuits to be handed out to the children, Sgt. Otis Richardson shrugged and said he’d rather be in Afghanistan.

Then a line of happy kids, many of whom wore only T-shirts, came crashing toward him with hands outstretched. He knelt to their height and smiled and laughed with each one as he handed them biscuits.

“OK, so yeah, I enjoyed that,” the 26-year-old said after the last kid walked away.

At the main hospital in Port-au-Prince, any time a soldier struck up a conversation with a Haitian, he’d be surrounded by more than a dozen within in minutes.

“I wish I could speak Creole so I could speak with more them,” said Gresham, who was gregarious and relaxed on the streets here.

It was a proximity that just never would be allowed in combat, and many soldiers said they enjoyed the opportunity to be in uniform without the element of fear - whether for their own personal safety or instilling it in others.

“It shows the other side of what we’re capable of,” Gresham said. “We’re very good at killing terrorists in combat, but were also capable of going out to other countries and helping a people who are in dire need.”

Still they recognize that what they’re doing will have an impact measured in days.

“The depth of the poverty here is staggering,” Salmo said. “They eat mud. They eat mud cookies. So we aren’t fixing that tomorrow.”

No one has said yet how long U.S. troops will be in Haiti, but Keen said he thought it would be “a tragedy — a tragedy — to not have sufficient forces to feed the people.”

Still, some of the soldiers have not been so moved by the experience.

In the back of a truck, jabbering to no one in particular, one sergeant flippantly remarked: “I joined the Army to shoot people. Nowhere in that contract did I say I wanted to come to Haiti and hand out humanitarian aid.”

Officers, while never pleased to hear something like that, say they understand the motivation behind such crassness.

“The soldiers see the effect we’re having and it’s inspirational,” Salmo said. “At the same time, our job as infantrymen is to fight the enemy. That’s what we want to do.”

Despite being a part of the Global Response Force, Company A hasn’t been training for disaster relief.

“You have to have priorities,” Salmo said. “If you go to combat and all you have are these helper skills you’re probably going to have a problem. But if you train for Afghanistan and go to Haiti, you’ll be in good shape.”

The soldiers are finding that some of the same skills needed to negotiate with the tribes of Afghanistan are coming into play in Haiti. The Army is tapping into the local leadership, often relying on pastors to direct them to those most in need.

Capt. Ramon Ramos, commander of Company C, attended a gathering this week of what is essentially a township council, using the opportunity to reach out and let them know the Army was there to help. It was much like a chai meeting in Iraq where soldiers sit cross-legged with local leaders, sipping tea and forging relationships.

In fact, many of the officers and senior NCOs see relief in Haiti as good preparation for counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.

“This is a great warm-up act,” Salmo said. “Especially dealing with the local population. Right now in Afghanistan that’s where the war is going to be won — with the locals.”

He added: “The people will always be critically important to what we do, whether handing out food or going to war.”

A young Haitian girl with a broken leg and hip as well as a head injury, lies on the ground outside the pediatric ward of the main hospital in Port-au-Prince after an aftershock sent patients fleeing from the building.