By Fred W. Baker, III

You could hear the crowd before you could see it.

From the top of the hill that served as a landing zone for disaster relief efforts, the crowd of locals gathered looked massive, the largest yet at the U.S. military relief point. It spanned the base of the hill, stretched into the wooded areas to the east and west and sprawled deep into the survivor camp to the north. Calls and cries and dust rose into the air as desperation hit a high.

The end of the day was near and it was obvious many would leave empty-handed.

It took the soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division’s 1st Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, alongside many local Haitian volunteers, several attempts to calm people down. At times they came dangerously close to spilling past the makeshift perimeter set up by the soldiers.

A handful of elderly women were pulled from the crowd, overcome by the heat and dust.

Local Haitians walked the line with bullhorns trying to talk a group of women into sitting down, but those in the back continued to push forward. The soldiers and volunteers on the perimeter formed a human chain to hold the crowd back.

Those passing out food and water simply sat down, stopping the distribution, as if to say that if they did not cooperate, those waiting would get nothing.

Eventually things calmed down a bit, and the distribution restarted, but the event was a sign of relief efforts to come as the military worked to increase the number of distribution points and push these points farther into the city.

Photo credit DoD photo by Fred W. Baker III

As many as 50,000 Haitians slept in this earthquake survivor camp in the Del Mas area in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. It grew by thousands as the U.S. Army 82nd Division’s 1st Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Squadron started distributing food and water.

“(With) that many people in a confined area you’re going to get a little pushing and shoving. And you can understand. They’re hurting for food and water,” said Army Captain Jon Hartsock, the commander in charge of the daily distribution.

Within days of the devastating January 12, 2010, earthquake, the U.S. Defense Department authorized up to $20 million in aid and sent thousands of troops to provide security, medical care, search and rescue efforts and logistics support. In less than a week, tons of food, water and medical supplies began arriving in the already impoverished country.

An official death toll was nearly impossible to determine because many people were buried in mass graves. Official counts did not include those killed in the more rural areas. A year later, local government officials put the toll at more than 300,000. A report by the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission put the number at 220,000, with more than 1.5 million living in outdoor camps six months after the earthquake.

International support surged, as nations around the globe reached out with pledges of support, but the U.S. military was uniquely qualified as the “first responder.”

The combination of expeditionary assets, both personnel and equipment, made U.S. troops the ideal candidates to put boots on the ground first, to help gather initial damage assessments, secure the port, restart air traffic control and begin the distribution of desperately needed supplies.

All of the capabilities that make the United States one of the greatest war machines in the world can be easily tailored to provide disaster relief when called upon.

The DoD’s expeditionary contracting capability, cargo transportation assets specially made for self-off loading, Navy ships which can generate power and purify large amounts of water and expeditionary port opening and operating capabilities offer the ability to quickly begin rendering aid.

The DoD stockpiles many items, such as food and shelter, for the troops that can be used for relief, and the DoD’s expeditionary medical capabilities far exceed the standard care many impoverished nations receive.

Also, U.S. troops are accustomed to operating in austere conditions and and various climates.

The past decade of working closely with other governmental and nongovernmental agencies gives the U.S. military an added dimension necessary to render aid. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the military has worked closely with other organizations in nation building efforts.

The U.S. military’s mission was not to put an enduring force in place, but rather to help stabilize the situation and set the conditions to turn over the aid efforts to local and international organizations that would provide long-term relief efforts.

Within days, troops began meeting with loosely formed “tent city councils” made up of local preachers and volunteers. The groups divided the camps and managed distribution from there.

That fit well with Hartsock’s plan to put the distribution in the hands of the Haitians.

“We want them distributing food. Our soldiers are out here just to maintain order on the lines,” he said.

On June 1, 2010, the U.S. Southern Command officially ended its disaster response efforts in Haiti. In the end, the U.S. military’s earthquake response included one of the largest medical outreach efforts in history. U.S. troops treated thousands of Haitian patients, including more than 8,600 on the Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort. Surgeons aboard the ship performed nearly 1,000 surgeries.

Military members also delivered more than 2.6 million bottles of water, 2.2 million food rations, 17 million pounds of bulk food and 149,000 pounds of medical supplies into Haiti.

After the initial earthquake response effort was over, the U.S. military continued humanitarian and construction projects in Haiti throughout the summer and the fall hurricane season. The USS Iwo Jima arrived on the island as part of Continuing Promise 2010, an annual civic assistance exercise supported by U.S. and international military medical personnel, civilian government agencies and academic institutions.

Two medical sites were arranged on shore and served more than 4,000 patients, while 34 patients were shuttled aboard for surgical care. The ship’s veterinary staff also rendered more than 1,200 services .

Naval Construction Forces (Seabees) from Construction Battalion Maintenance Unit 202 of Norfolk, Virginia, helped restore the Northwest Christian Mission building and Immaculate Conception Hospital. The unit repaired the roof, installed bathrooms and built a pavilion over the hospital’s outdoor washing area. The mission serves about 250 orphans.

A year later, the U.S. military was continuing its efforts in Haiti.

Perched on high ground in the Artibonite province, the 2,300 troops deployed there operated similarly in many ways to operations overseas. Almost all of the military services were combined for a joint mission. Also, a handful of foreign militaries contributed teams. They formed up under a single command structure to carry out their operations with military precision.

Task Force Bon Voizen, which translates as “good neighbor,” served as a picture-perfect image of the U.S. military’s soft-power efforts. The task force’s only enemies were time and budget.

While the troops called leaving the base “going outside the wire,” it was actually a few flimsy strands of concertina, easily infiltrated by guineas, dogs, pigs and the occasional donkey.

The fence’s primary purpose was to keep people from walking through the base camp to visit those living in the surrounding community.

The Haitian government chose the region for the task force’s efforts because of the influx of residents after the earthquake. Thousands left the devastated Port-au-Prince area, seeking food, shelter and jobs in the surrounding rural areas. The Artibonite area is about 70 miles northwest of Port-au-Prince, and Haitian officials were in favor of improving the infrastructure there, rather than have the displaced return to the already overcrowded inner city that was still struggling to recover.

When the task force wrapped up its mission in June 2011, it had treated more than 32,000 medical and dental patients. That included delivering a few babies, providing emergency surgery and constructing a mouthpiece for a child born with a cleft palate.

Veterinary technicians treated almost 2,100 area animals, and the engineers built a school, two clinics and bathroom facilities.

Photo credit DoD photo by Fred W. Baker III

A boy holds a soldier’s hand as they walk through a survivor camp in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on January 21, 2010.

The task force was commanded by members of the Louisiana National Guard, but troops from other states including Florida, Massachusetts, Georgia, North Dakota, Colorado and New York joined in for two-week rotations.

The Army Reserve provided military police and engineers. Active-duty Marines provided civil affairs support, and the Air Force provided weathermen and medical staff.

Foreign countries supporting the efforts as an official part of the task force included doctors from Colombia and Canada and engineers from Belize.

Additional support came from a U.N. peacekeeping force as Japanese engineers volunteered to help on a project. Policemen from Argentina provided crowd control at medical and dental sites in the cities.

For their efforts, the troops received “nothing but love,” said Army Major Wynn Nugent, operations officer for the task force.

“What we’re doing here is a drop in the bucket (compared to) what these people need. But we’re providing them a glimmer of hope,” he said. “We show them, ‘Hey, the world’s not giving up on you. We’re here and we’re fighting for you.’”

Nugent said the locals are poor by American standards, but they are easygoing and hardworking.

“You don’t see a lot of begging. If they are asking for something, they are asking for a job,” he said. “They want to work and earn what they receive. They are not just looking for a handout.”

“They love America. They love Americans. I think they would be the 51st state if we let them,” Nugent added with a laugh. But while Nugent joked, it is exactly that sentiment that U.S. officials hoped to instill, especially in the years following the earthquake.

“The real value is … we’re having incredible positive impact on the lives of disenfranchised Haitians,” Dan Foote, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy said during a visit to the site. “And, we’re sending the broader message that the United States is a friend of Haiti, and we are going to be here in the good times and the bad.”

Foote called Haiti a “great friend” to the United States. Exercises such as these are critical to maintaining that relationship, he added.

“This is an on-the-ground example of real, tangible assistance to the population.”

Even as task force members prepared to leave, officials agreed that the impression made in Haiti will last for a lifetime.

“These are the sort of things that don’t create political messages, but create human messages,” Foote said. “Our hope here is that we can continue to do exercises and missions like this into the future, because every time we do that we win a new generation of hearts and minds.”

Editor’s note: This article was adapted from a series of articles written on location following the January 2010 earthquake. Fred W. Baker III, currently the editor of Army Sustainment Magazine, was writing for American Forces Press Service when he covered the Haitian earthquake and its aftermath.