Staff Sgt. Karen Harless thinks often the Haiti’s children: kids of all ages wandering the crumbled streets of Port-au-Prince, their parents nowhere in sight. When they saw American military vehicles, they’d flag them down and ask for food and water.
“The first couple times we saw that it was pretty tough,” said Harless, the platoon sergeant of Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s 153rd Medical Detachment. “I have three kids myself. They were just walking around with nothing to do and nowhere to go.”
Harless was part of a 10-person blood services detachment who left Lewis-McChord in late January to help with the U.S. military’s humanitarian mission in Haiti. Two weeks later, 55 soldiers from the 56th Multifunctional Medical Battalion headquarters left for Haiti.
The base’s 62nd Airlift Wing also has a presence in there: an aerial port squadron that offloads cargo at the airport, a maintenance team and aircrews that ferry supplies between Port-au-Prince and Charleston Air Force Base.
The troops are part of an American military force that arrived a week after the 7.0-magnitude earthquake destroyed much of the capital, Port-au-Prince, and killed an estimated 230,000 people.
The American military presence, dubbed Operation Unified Response, includes personnel from all branches of the military and at one point numbered 17,000. Its members’ responsibilities included the distribution of emergency food supplies, providing security for the United Nations and aid groups, reopening the capital’s airport, evacuating American citizens and seriously wounded Haitians to the United States and opening a field hospital.
The two medical units deployed from Lewis-McChord provided medical support for American service members. The 153rd Medical Detachment returned after about five weeks. The battalion headquarters remains in Port-au-Prince, and commander Lt. Col. Tony Nesbitt told The News Tribune in a phone interview he’s not sure when their mission will end.
The detachment was in charge of setting up a blood-supply storage and distribution network. It set up at an ad hoc military base named Logistical Support Area Sustainer, though it lacked showers, laundry and dining facilities when they first arrived. They slept in tents, ate Meals Ready to Eat and worked in eight-hour shifts.
“It was rough, “said Harless, a 39-year-old Tennessee resident. “But we survived it, and we did very well.”
The 56th Multifunctional Medical Battalion headquarters left in early February to command the medical task force providing care for all American service members there. About 320 service members were assigned to the task force at the height of the military’s presence in Haiti, but that number has since shrunk to about 137. Its subordinate units ran basic health care, ambulance services, food inspections, veterinary services, logistics of medical supplies, trauma care and preventative health.
Harless and Nesbitt each described the scene in Port-au-Prince as shocking, with crumbling buildings, debris strewn everywhere and tent cities housing thousands of people rendered homeless.
Troops from Nesbitt’s battalion use free time to help with the reconstruction effort. Soldiers helped aid groups with the logistics of running a medical ware house, and others helped implement a rabies vaccination program run by the Haitian Ministry of Agriculture.
And about 15 of the battalion’s soldiers visit orphanages twice a week to play with the kids (many of whom have physical or mental disabilities) and help clean up the buildings.
“From the time we were notified to do this mission, it’s something we were always eager to do,” Nesbitt said. “It feels good to do it, and it does take on a bit of a different feeling (than tours to a combat zone). There’s a real sense of accomplishment among all the soldiers.”