For U.S. soldiers in Haiti, helping becomes the hardest part

Many unforeseen obstacles threaten successful food delivery to hungry Haitians. Debris and trash make it difficult to retrieve food from truck deliveries and in many cases not enough food is being delivered.
By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 29, 2010

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- Capt. Edward Kim and his 100 troops camp out on what was the tennis court of the National Palace, destroyed in the earthquake two weeks ago. When out on the streets of this devastated city, they wear their rifles slung behind their backs to show they're here not to guard but to help.

But helping remains hard.

For many U.S. soldiers, assisting the homeless and injured is taking more time and patience than they'd expected. Some of their supplies, including trucks, are still not here, forcing different units to share what they have. Many units were stalled for up to three days on a grassy field next to the airport, awaiting orders of where to go and what to do. As units finally filter out to establish smaller bases in neighborhoods, they are gradually figuring out what people need and how to get it to them.

None of it is easy. Crowds overwhelm food distribution points. Soldiers trying to deliver supplies run into bumper-to-bumper traffic; traveling two miles can take an hour. Amid it all are the anguished people of Haiti the soldiers are here to help.

"It is hard for us to look at those people," said Kim, eyeing the encampment of 2,000 people just outside the palace compound. "We're trying to push out food and water as fast as we can, but it's a logistical nightmare."

One day earlier this week, Kim, of Tacoma, Wash., waited more than five hours for three of his trucks and a platoon of his men from the 82nd Airborne to get back from helping secure a medical facility for a visit from a VIP. The wait prevented him from sending out other troops to deliver 400 meals and left the waiting soldiers in their camp playing cards and sleeping.

Given the slow pace, some soldiers worry about how long the warm welcome they initially received from many Haitians will last.

"People want us here, and they understand we're here to help," said 1st Sgt. Mark Allen of Binghamton, N.Y. "But the vibe is changing. I'm starting to see the looks of 'you've been here a week, where's my food? And what are you doing for me?' "

To Kim, that's a sign his soldiers must push out supplies as quickly as they can.

The trucks finally arrived that day, and Kim gathered his men. Their first stop was to replenish supplies at a field hospital established here by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The trucks rumbled down potholed streets, passing by piles of rubble and a dead woman's body, her yellowed hands stretching from a smashed car.

The entrance of the hospital, on the grounds of what used to be a university, bumps up against a makeshift camp that, soldiers estimate, 5,000 Haitians have turned into a city of tents. Each day men, women and children use water faucets near razor wire separating them from the troops. The soldiers play with the children that come to the fence. At night, the people sing.

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