For Greensboro native, Haiti night missions are scary but effective
‘Port-au-Prince was almost entirely destroyed. (photo by Randall Gregg)‘
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — It’s dark, very dark, as there are no streetlights and the power is out. We see candles every now and then on the side of the streets, some of them placed in plastic buckets, giving the light a faint glow.
I shine a flashlight on the ground every now and then to make sure I don’t step in something wet or sharp. There’s a smell in the air as we walk by certain areas and I’m not sure if it’s from the raw sewage or garbage in the streets. Or both.
We’re walking on dusty streets in the middle of the city of Port-au-Prince after the earthquake. The rubble is still piled around us where buildings fell, with flattened cars and houses reduced to crumbling bits and pieces.
I’m with the first platoon in the Golf Battery in the 2 nd Battalion of the 319 th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment from US Army Airborne division at Fort Bragg.
Now we’re on a night mission on foot from Advance Operating Base Green, which is located in the middle of the city at a former equestrian facility. Some soldiers sleep in the open on cots while others sleep in horse stalls.
The first platoon is led by Lt. Jeremy Valtin, a young man from Sanford, who graduated from Western Harnett High School and a 2008 graduate of UNC- Chapel Hill, which right now seems a long way from here.
The lead sergeant in our platoon, or “smoke” sergeant as they call him in the artillery, is Sgt. 1 st Class Matt White. Also a North Carolina native, White grew up in Greensboro and now lives on a farm in Randleman.
The first platoon is led by Lt. Jeremy Valtin (left), a recent graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill from Sanford, and Sgt. 1 st Class Matt White, who grew up in Greensboro and now lives in Randleman. (photo by Randall Gregg)
US soldiers assisting in the aid process. (photo by Randall Gregg)
White, who they sometimes call “Pops,” is not old at 37, but compared to other troops under him who are in their twenties, he’s up there. He joined after high school and has been in the Iraq wars — both of them — and in Afghanistan.
He’s an NC State fan who has to take orders from a Carolina graduate, but as the sergeant says, it’s a North Carolina platoon, so he’s fine with that.
White is the kind of guy you’d want alongside of you in a war, and when he retires in a few years it will be the Army’s loss. He’s tough, smart and experienced, but also funny.
His sense of humor has come in handy in working with the Haitian people despite the fact that he doesn’t speak French. A smile and a laugh are pretty much universal.
However, like any sergeant, he won’t hesitate to tell you if you’re doing something wrong but he’s probably saving your life in the process. He’s a stickler for making sure he knows where all of his men are at all times. Headcounts before and after we go into a location are mandatory.
Last night, we went to a local tent camp after dark and brought in a load of food, which comes in boxes of what the Army calls “Meals Ready to Eat” or MREs. The soldiers have handed out thousands of MREs and bottled water directly to people one by one.
Tonight, we’re looking for more camps in this sector that need food and also check out the neighborhood in general.
Right now, we’re headed on foot towards a small orphanage that is not far off.
Getting there by quietly walking through the dark streets, the orphanage was not easy to find. It’s located off the street behind a basketball court, down a set of steps, through a tent camp, and finally at the end of a path near some trees.
We step over water, as one of the soldiers warns me to watch out for the “poo river” where people dump their wastewater, and we continue towards a single light.
Here at the orphanage, which was damaged in the earthquake, people are sleeping on the ground using sheets. Some people sleep in cars or just on the ground.
The soldiers meet with Rico, the large man running the church orphanage and they share a friendly conversation as he rests on the back of a pickup truck.
Originally from Miami, he is an American citizen and was here at the orphanage when the earthquake hit. His family is paying to keep the orphanage operating, but they’ve run into several problems.
Many of the orphans are sick with dysentery or typhoid fever, and the sergeant tells the man that they need to separate the sick children from the healthy kids; otherwise they’ll all end up sick.
White says that Rico has also been sick and in addition, the orphanage’s generator has conked out and they can’t fix it.
The sergeant tells the man that he will return tomorrow with doctors to take a look at the children. The following day, he brings in some American civilian volunteer doctors who put in IVs into the children and check them out. He will also have an Army mechanic take a look at their generator.
Although he probably wouldn’t admit it, White seems to be emotionally affected by seeing these young infants suffering.
“I’m not going to quit going down in there,” he says. “Babies, we’re just working with babies.”
As we make our way up the darkened street, we can hear heavenly singing. It’s a little strange and incongruous to hear such angelic sounds amidst all of the destruction around us.
Walking up a hill into an open square at the intersection of several dusty streets, we see lights and a large mass of people. As we have seen before, the people are attending an evening outdoor church service. They don’t have hymnals and they don’t need them.
The music is beautiful and even if the surroundings are not exactly heaven on earth, these people seem to be happy to just have each other.
After several hours and more trips to other refugee camps that evening, the platoon heads back and is ready to get some rest despite the mosquitoes. They start all over again tomorrow morning for another 14-hour day. They will likely be there another six months but in the meantime, they are waging a war on hunger.
A man who can assess a situation pretty well, White sums up their mission in Haiti in just a few words.
“We’re saving the world one MRE at a time.”
Randall Gregg is editor of The Raleigh Telegram. To view our other stories from Haiti visit http://www.raleightelegram.com/indexhaiti.html