Everywhere we went, the Haitians gathered to watch.
The big Ohio National Guard Blackhawk settled to the earth with its rotors beating heavily, on a small hill next to a dirt road in a rural area about 50 miles north of Port-au-Prince (the Louisiana National Guard’s Blackhawks were in Lakotas). Children in faded school uniforms ran up to see, some sticking their fingers in their ears to shield them against the noise. Behind them came the adults; the men in old and work-roughened clothing, the women wearing simple dresses or native designs dyed with complex patterns. The goats that seem to be everywhere on the island scattered, while a cow tethered in a small nearby field pulled at the tie rope nervously, the whites of her eyes showing.
Everyone came to see the foreigners who were spending two months to bring help following the horrific Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake. A year and a half later, the scars are still visible – ruined, roofless homes left abandoned in cities, towns, villages and rural areas. In the cities there are new communities of tents, encampments of hundreds of faded blue and silver tarpaulins stretched over metal frames that look too permanent.
“I know it has got to be disheartening to see all this devastation, to be part of all this devastation, all the loss they have been through. It has got to be a little encouraging to see some of the help that’s being given to them here by the Louisiana National Guard,” said Major General Bennett Landreneau, Adjutant General of the Louisiana National Guard. “Your heart goes out to the people here in Haiti.”
Landreneau, the military commander of the Louisiana National Guard, was sobered by the stark reality of life in the island nation. The U.S. State Department reports 80 percent of Haitians were in poverty, making it the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation even before the disaster, with more than half of the population living on less than $2 a day. Here, we saw entire families living in 10-by-10-foot shacks with cinderblock, scrap lumber or corrugated metal sides. Many places we visited had no electricity or running water. We flew over tiny farms with small groups of people tending the crops by hand. Women trudged through the fields balancing large bundles on their heads. But the American general saw the inner strength of people who face tests for survival every day.
“It is amazing to me, looking at those people in their tents, the pride they have in themselves. The little girls come out in white dresses, the ladies are in white dresses, the girls had ribbons and bows in their hair, and they were living in tents,” he said.
Clearing the Earth
Landreneau was in Haiti to see the same thing that kept the local onlookers curious, the men and women wearing green camouflage uniforms who had turned part of a village soccer field into a construction site. It was a major project of Task Force Bon Voizen, which means “Good Neighbor.” In a clearing of raw earth next to the tiny village of Upper Poteau, the soldiers scurried about like carpenter ants, one team pouring cement for a culvert, a group of United States Army Reservists from New Hampshire painting the windows of a brand-new three-room building and yet another team installing sinks and painting the walls of a newly completed four-room structure.
Captain David Haydel of the Louisiana National Guard’s 205th Engineers from Bogalusa noted the three-room building is a school that will be a job-training center. The other building will open as a medical clinic for women. It is one of the few in the country, and the only one in the area, the Hammond resident pointed out.
During the briefing, Louisiana team leaders said that centers like this in Haiti traditionally include an outdoor kitchen, so they adjusted the plans and drew appreciative laughs as they described adding a “Cajun Oven” and three open-pit grills. Even with the changes, the task force commander, Colonel Kenneth Donnelly of New Orleans, said they finished five days ahead of schedule. He pointed out that the population in rural areas like this swelled as people fled the cities after the quake.
“I was in Iraq at the time (Hurricane) Katrina hit,” Donnelly said, “and when I moved back, we had to relocate my family. I know all the struggles we went through as a single family. But (it) took over five years to get to where the city of New Orleans is today. I look at the one-year anniversary of the earthquake here in Haiti, and there have been some significant improvements, but looking at the impacts, and the impoverished community that was here to begin with, it’s a lot longer and harder road for the Haitian people than it is for us in Louisiana. But we’re going through the same type of challenges.”
The onlookers from area villages seemed to realize that, talking quietly among themselves, occasionally offering the visitors shy smiles or small waves.
“They like the work,” said Haitian native Sem Omelus, who was helping Task Force Bon Voizen as a translator.
“They appreciate the Americans.”
Captain Haydel said the soccer field would be rebuilt better than it was, because town leaders had made its importance clear. Task Force Bon Voizen has two purposes: helping with earthquake recovery is combined with military training. As another hurricane season nears its peak, Guard members reinforced their storm response readiness.
“They come here, and work in an austere environment,” said General Landreneau. “They’ve got to really deal with tough logistics, base camp construction, all those types of things that are really important to the state of Louisiana when we have to respond to emergencies. These soldiers are honing their skills, and they’re getting ready.”
Working side-by-side with the American soldiers was a team of engineers from Belize. General Landreneau said it was the first time a Central American country has formed a partnership with a National Guard unit.
“We are assisting the Louisiana National Guard in the construction of this clinic, this and the school,” said Lieutenant Marlo Rodriguez of the Belize Defense Force Light Engineers Company. “We’re doing finishing touches on the building, electrical work, plumbing.”
“It’s a State Department program between a state and a country,” said General Landreneau. “We have a partnership with Belize which has been ongoing for some 14 years, and now we’ve been asked to take on Haiti in our State Partnerships for Peace program.
The general said a partnership plan is being developed with Haiti, focusing on the Haitian police force, and the country’s emergency management system. Landreneau made an intensive one-day trip to Haiti to inspect progress in Task Force Bon Voizen, not knowing he would become part of an impromptu civics lesson.
At the site of another clinic under construction in the village of Bardon Marchand, the visiting American team spotted children watching them through the windows of a school next door. They went in to say hello. The schoolroom was a concrete shell with no lights. The wooden desks were crammed with students 10 to 12 years old, wearing navy blue pants or skirts with blue-checkered shirts. They eyed the Louisiana soldiers with frank curiosity.
The general tried cross-cultural communications with the help of a little French.
“Tres bien, tres bien, tres bien,” he said, then he asked in English, “Anyone play soccer here?” When that was translated, the answer was a chorus of “Oui!” The school’s principal, Jean Batiste Moncleste, turned the visit into a teaching moment for the students about international cooperation in a crisis.
“It’s a collaboration of help, and workingness, and all-togetherness,” the translator put it.
This is the second year National Guard teams have helped in the Haitian earthquake recovery, both times led by the Louisiana Guard. At least 10 states have sent active duty and reserve military teams to take part and 550 Louisiana Guard members served in Task Force Bon Voizen during rotations of two weeks. Participating countries include the United States, Canada, Columbia, Haiti and Belize; in addition, United Nations engineer troops from Japan joined for a week and United Nations security forces from Argentina provided security at each medical mission site.
The Forward Operating Base is in a field near the town of Mandarin. The base is a storage center for construction materials and enough tents to hold 500 soldiers at a time. They are clustered tightly together in an array designed to look like the boot image of the state of Louisiana. A goat strolled through the camp, ignoring the generals; it wasn’t a pet, we were told, just a local resident in a fruitless search for something to eat on grounds cleaned to military standards.
Three adjutant generals took part in the tour, and after a lunch of salad and chicken stew, they told the assembled troops their impressions.
“Thank you for your service to America, for your service here in Haiti,” said Major General Joseph Carter, commander of the Massachusetts National Guard. “It is really making a difference. It may not seem that when you fly over this place as a country, but every little thing that you do is exponentially huge for the people of Haiti.”
Carter’s soldiers were in charge of providing fresh water for the task force, 50,000 gallons a day.
“To be on the ground, and to see the smiles on children’s faces that are going to schools that have been built by Americans, and Guardsmen – Louisiana Guardsmen – with participation from Massachusetts, guarded by Colorado MPs right now. … We’re proud,” said Major General Mike Edwards of the Colorado National Guard. He was also proud that the 110 members of the Colorado Guard’s 220th Military Police Company haven’t had any incidents to report.
We found a large crowd of people in the small town of Bocozelle at the J. Peter Gruits Medical Center. The place was jammed. Hundreds were waiting patiently outside, and every room we saw inside was crowded.
“We’ve been going to the site and providing medical support to American soldiers, and to the natives out here,” said Specialist Drew Kelly from the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans. As a member of the 756th Area Support Medical Company, he has been helping out at the clinic. “This is definitely a life-changing event, so you’ve always got to be sympathetic to what is going on with them.”
Louisiana Guard members were helping 30 doctors from the countries of Columbia and Canada, as well as the United States Air Force. Captain Joseph Garcia from Lackland Air Base in San Antonio, Texas said they’re seeing 500 to 700 patients a day, who need a range of services including outpatient surgeries to dermatology. There was a babel of languages as the doctors compassionately listened to translators describing the ailments of worried patients.
Norbert Dounsereaux of New Orleans will never forget the clinic. “It was an emotional time there for me. To see young ladies with four or five kids, who couldn’t be more than 25 themselves. To see the sickness that exists in the area is very heartbreaking,” he said.
Down a one-lane road with two-way traffic, once blocked by a man leading two mules loaded with sticks of firewood for cooking, we reached the busy city of Saint-Marc. Suddenly the road teemed with vehicles and pedestrians. We passed small, rickety buildings. Some were homes, others small businesses, brightly painted with advertisements for the items on sale. One side street was lined with mattresses on display. Passing trucks and cars are often painted with religious slogans such as “Jesus Roi” and “L’Union Des Saints.” Here Task Force Bon Voizen was helping at a dental clinic that sees 100 patients a day.
Saint-Marc’s Mayor Baunars Charles gave General Landreneau the key to the city. It looks like it was cut out of Styrofoam and sprayed with gold paint, but the mayor assured the general that it was truly a working key to Saint-Marc.
“Sir, he said ‘you have this key not only for today, forever,’” explained the translator. “If he is not here, any other mayor that’s in Saint-Marc, you have the key, you can open the city of Saint-Marc any time you want, sir.”
Another crowd gathered at the edges of the soccer stadium to watch the generals depart. The trip back to Port-au-Prince followed the coastline, where clear blue-green Caribbean waters were dotted with sailboats trailing fishing nets. Men cast nets by hand in the shallows near white sand beaches. It looked like it could become a tourist paradise. The generals left Haiti having seen the struggles, but also with an awareness of the potential in the small island nation.
“This is a beautiful place to see,” said General Edwards. “And it would be my hope the Haitian people … can have a nation that is thriving, and that’s going very, very well into the future after what they’ve been through.”
“It will certainly take a long time,” noted General Landreneau, “but I just have to be very proud of these soldiers and airmen that are here and are doing their part.”
Bill Capo is a reporter for WWL- TV/Channel 4 in New Orleans.
Three TAGs On A Mission
They call them the TAGs, and there were three of them on the trip to Haiti. TAG stands for “The Adjutant General,” and that’s what members of the National Guard call the commanders of the states’ National Guard units, sort of a serviceman’s shorthand.
It is a small, exclusive community within the military world. That was quickly evident when the Colorado National Guard aircraft landed in Baton Rouge to pick up the Louisiana Guard contingent. Major General Bennett Landreneau, commander of the Louisiana National Guard, warmly greeted his counterpart from Colorado, Major General Mike Edwards. Edwards quickly explained that they had known each other a long time.
It was a friendly flight. The two generals sat across the aisle from each other in the center of the plane, the prime spots. They laughed and shared stories with their Command Sergeant Majors, and even called me over to give me some background on what we would see in Haiti.
“Our relationship with Haiti will go way beyond this mission,” Landreneau said, speaking above the noise of the propellers. He added that Governor Jindal asked him to tell the Guard members how proud he is of their efforts in this second year the Louisiana Guard has led the earthquake rebuilding effort. I asked if there would be a third year.
“I think that is very likely,” he said, adding that discussions are underway with SouthCom, the United States Army Southern Command.
When we landed in Haiti, another plane, identical to ours, was waiting at the Port-au-Prince Airport. It brought the TAG of the Massachusetts National Guard, Major General Joseph Carter, to Haiti. After more warm greetings, the party of generals – six stars in all – quickly climbed into their own helicopter.
It must be fun being a TAG. Everyone around you makes things happen for you. If you need to know something, someone does all the research and presents a comprehensive report, probably in record time.
TAGs are quick studies. Their lives are extremely busy, each day filled with decisions large and small. So they don’t waste time, as I found out in Haiti.
We arrived half an hour late for what was already planned to be a busy day. There were seven stops to make in six hours. We jumped in and out of helicopters like they were New York City taxis. The generals moved at a brisk pace, quickly inspecting each site, listening attentively to the briefings given at each location, shaking hands with those nearby and abruptly moving on.
“Do you notice the shape of the FOB?” Landreneau asked me during the briefing at the Forward Operating Base, the tent city that was the base of operations for Task Force Bon Voizen. There was appreciative laughter as he made sure I saw that the camp was designed in the shape of the state of Louisiana.
I swallowed lunch almost whole, hardly taking time to chew, so I could get some of the major interviews done, including with the generals. I asked task force commander Colonel Ken Donnelly if he had a few minutes to talk to me while the generals were still eating. But he wasn’t about to be doing something else if the generals needed him, so he deferred. The generals were patient as I interviewed each as quickly as possible. But when I tried to interview Donnelly (who would have preferred surgery without anesthesia), the generals were ready to go. After all, their interviews were done. Donnelly’s was done in a flash, and he breathed a sigh of relief.
At the medical clinic, I heard, “Hey, I’m from New Orleans,” and turned to find Norbert Dounseroux in his Guard uniform, smiling to see folks from home. I immediately wanted to interview him, but was practically dragged away by mission coordinators. After all, the generals were moving on. I saw their faces watching me from their car. They must have thought I was the slowest human on the planet. When we got blocked on a one-lane bridge, and saw the generals speeding off in the distance, there was consternation on our bus. By the time we caught up, they were nearly finished inspecting the dental clinic, walking out just minutes after I walked in.
It was raining at the airport, but somehow the generals didn’t get wet. They were smiling as the plane took off. It had been a good day; each was proud of the job he saw his troops doing. Before we cleared the island, they were asleep.