Haiti relief mission a grueling labor of love

PORT AU PRINCE, HAITI (Navy Times) -- Marine Gunnery Sgt. Shawn Werthen's flight suit and undershirt were soaked in sweat. Standing on the tarmac here, he looked close to the point of exhaustion.

"That last load took a lot out of me, it was heavy," he said, after he and his crew of Marines hauled huge boxes onto a helicopter. They contained water purification equipment headed for Les Cayes, Haiti, one of the areas devastated by Hurricane Matthew.

Werthen is one of the roughly 400 troops who lugged vital supplies from dusk to dawn for nearly two weeks at Toussaint Louverture International Airport, where 20 helicopters and a Marine special purpose air-ground task force staged and loaded 272 tons of supplies to deliver throughout the country. That's equivalent to the weight of a fleet of 181 Volkswagens — all moved by hand.

Werthen motioned to the bird spinning its engines for take-off.

"Mostly it’s been rice, beans, oil," he said. "We just did a big load of non-perishables — toilet paper, stuff like that. This is all water producing supplies to set up, get fresh water out there. This is the first one of those that we've done."

Task Force Matthew was assembled Oct. 4 and at its peak swelled to more than 2,200 troops with the arrival of the amphibious assault ship Iwo Jima eight days later.

For nearly two weeks prior to Iwo’s arrival, 400 troops camped out at the unfinished domestic terminal and moved hundreds of thousands of pounds of rice, beans and medical supplies provided by the World Food Programme and other organizations. 

'Wiped out'

During the first few minutes of a flight to Les Cayes, you wouldn’t know that anything had happened to Haiti. The area around the Haitian capital was largely untouched by the Category 4 Hurricane. But as the CH-53E Super Stallion barreled south along the coast, evidence of Matthew’s rampage through Haiti’s south began to become clear.

Fields of crops preparing to be harvested were wiped out and waterlogged. Trees were trimmed clean of vegetation by 140-knot winds. The winds tore off roofs and flooding obliterated homes and roads.

This is why the U.S. military had to come here — and quickly. The nine helicopters from Joint Task Force Bravo, a mix of CH-53 Super Stallions, UH-60 Black Hawks and CH-47 Chinooks, moved Oct. 3 from their station in Honduras to Grand Cayman, about 600 miles west of Haiti, prepared to support the U.S. Agency for International Development’s response.

By the afternoon of the 5th, it was clear the helos would be needed. Without those helicopters and the work of the crews, it might have taken weeks to truck supplies to places like Les Cayes. Hundreds of lives were likely saved by the fast response.

“There’s a lot devastation,” said Werthen, the Marine CH-53 aerial observer. “It’s pretty bad out there. Their crops are wiped out, trees are wiped out; towns are wiped out. People are just clinging on right now. 

“I’m glad that we’re here and able to help out all the people who are in need,” he continued. “You get out there and you see how much damage is done, it feels good to know we can help in some small way.”

While helos took off nearly round the clock, the death toll from the hurricane topped 1,000 and scattered outbreaks of cholera increased the urgency of relief efforts.

The troops moved more than 600,000 pounds of supplies, the bulk of which were sacks of rice and beans carried by hand. The backbreaking work was accomplished in the scorching Haiti heat, with temperatures soaring into 90s.

"Our guys are exhausted. We've been working long hours and running these aircraft and our people extremely hard," said Army Lt. Col. Rich Tucker, commander of 1st Battalion, 228th Aviation Regiment commander. "But we felt that getting the most amount of support out early was important."

Every service member who spoke to Navy Times expressed pride and satisfaction with the mission they were sent to perform on short notice.

"We've been moving about 3,000 pounds of supplies per flight," said Army Specialist Brian Green, a UH-60 Blackhawk crew chief. "Mostly rice, beans, oil. They find out where the people need it, and we load up birds and get it out to them as quick as we can. It's amazing, I love being out here helping people." 

Reinforcements arrive

The Iwo Jima, which carried Marines from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, took mission lead on Oct. 16. By Oct. 19, about 100 Task Force Matthew personnel remained at the airport but the bulk of the response was taking off from Iwo Jima's hectic flight deck, which was in the waters near the hard-hit areas.

And while 2,000 troops were still involved in the mission, requests for  U.S. military assistance declined as other organizations began to pick up the load.

"DoD doesn't need to be out here forever," said Jeremy Konyndyk, a USAID official who has led the U.S. response to Hurricane Matthew. "We bring them out where they have unique capabilities to fill gaps in the response. As those gaps are filled by civilian actors and local market forces, then the rationale for DoD being here starts to decline and that's normal. ... So DoD comes out on the front end, gives a real big push for a couple of weeks, gets some momentum and helps us get the response rolling, and then the civilians step up."

Within 36 hours of Matthew’s landfall, SOUTHCOM had boots on the ground. Task Force Matthew grew within days to about 170 military personnel and nine helicopters. The amphibious transport dock Mesa Verde’s crew of about 375, along with 300 Marines arrived Oct. 9.

The Iwo departed Norfolk Oct. 8 with 1,200 sailors, 500 Marines, a Seabee detachment, a Navy survey team and full medical staff to man the ship’s 300-bed hospital. The crew battled stormy, 20-foot-plus seas trying to navigate around Matthew. They arrived off Haiti Oct. 12 and immediately began relief flights.

The mood on Iwo was much the same as at the airport: Sailors and Marines were eager to get to the mission even though the Mayport, Florida-based ship had sortied just as the crews’ families were being told to evacuate the area.

“I think it’s amazing, people go their whole naval careers and don't get the opportunity to help people in this manner,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Stephanie Matson, who works on Iwo’s flight deck. “I think it’s a great opportunity to help these people.”

For some on board, the mission was personal.

“I’m from South Florida so I’ve seen my share of severe weather,” said Staff Sgt. Michael Creamer, a crew chief with the embarked 24th MEU. “And whenever something like this happens, it’s easy to feel like you’re isolated. There is a mountain of things you need to overcome to get back to your normal life. And these people have been hit with some pretty bad storms.

“So hopefully they see us out there helping, it will bring them a little bit of comfort to know that people from as far away as the United States are out here trying to do what we can.”   


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