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

By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 29, 2010; A12

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.

"You don't know that they have any problems when you hear them singing," marveled Lt. Chris King of Seattle, Wash.

The main mission that day for Kim's unit was to pick up and deliver 1,000 meals, 600 bottles of water and 300 radios donated by a volunteer group from the Church of Scientology, who had traveled here from the United States to help in the days after the Jan. 12 earthquake.

Leaving the hospital, the Army trucks again skirted debris-filled roads to reach the group of a half-dozen volunteers in orange T-shirts who asked to join in the distribution of the goods. Before the convoy embarked on the mile-long trip to a soccer stadium where 3,500 people had set up camp, a young lieutenant mapped out a plan on a piece of cardboard.

They would pull the trucks in a way that wouldn't allow the people to see how much food they had in an effort to keep people calm. They would direct the crowds into one line and distribute meals from two trucks. Kim wanted it done quickly, the sun was starting to set, and he feared the scene could grow chaotic after dark.

The trucks fired up their diesels and headed toward the stadium. As they pulled in, any effort at order quickly fell apart as people spotted the food inside the trucks, despite the soldiers' efforts.

The crowd raced toward them, overwhelming some of the soldiers who jumped from the trucks and pleaded with them to get into lines. Women carrying babies were pushed aside as the hungry crowd surged forward.

Soldiers tossed the food packages and water bottles from the back of the trucks as quickly as they could. In 17 minutes, it was gone.

And hundreds still remained unfed and thirsty. Most looked sad; a few, remarkably, smiled at the soldiers.

"That was the worst one we've done yet. We knew it was going to get crazy. We knew we weren't going to have enough for everybody," said Lt. Jarod Taylor, 23, of Fort Benning, Ga., who planned the food drop. "We're learning."

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