|C-17 Globemaster which I drove an up-armored humvee off of in total 3am moonless darkness|
into Haiti 5 years ago last week.
Since I had been out in the field for several days, I had no idea what was going on in the world and figured there was a training mission to Haiti I hadn't heard about. I was in the 82nd Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team which was designated as the Army's "Ready Brigade" for 2010. In case of any national security emergency, we were tasked to be the first ones on scene. The 82nd Airborne is world famous as the most *elite military division that trains to deploy via "forced entry" (parachuting into areas where at least some of the locals aren't happy to see us) and be anywhere in the world on 18 hours notice.
I soon got word that we already had 2nd Brigade Soldiers en route to Haiti ready to parachute in if need be (in case of a coup or civil unrest making landing an Army Transport plane dicey) but suspect that any would-be coup d'etat perpetrators were discouraged once they knew 82nd Airborne was in bound which was the main purpose (if unstated) of this mission. President Clinton deployed the 82nd Airborne to Haiti back in 1994 to encourage the military coup leaders to stand down and reinstall President Aristide. When the coup leaders saw live news reports showing paratroopers boarding C-130s and were in the air about to drop in, the coup collapsed, the military junta scurried away, and democracy was restored.
I provide this little history lesson because it was so critical to the success of our mission which eventually became known as Operation Unified Response. Since my unit had been out in the field, we were not among the first to depart but waited for word next to the runway. Every 2nd Brigade vehicle was staged on the massive tarmac of Pope Air Force Base which adjoins Fort Bragg (imagine an area of cement about 10 football fields in size) with vehicles of various capabilities lined up in neat rows. C-17 Globemasters were diverted from ferrying people and equipment to and from Iraq and Afghanistan to now transporting troops and equipment to Haiti.
There was just one big problem which is there is only one runway in all of Haiti and they were having problems at the Port au Prince (capital of Haiti) airport getting organzied so planes en route had to circle and wait for the green light to land. By Day 2 of the relief effort, every NGO (Non-Government Organization such as International Red Cross) known to man, woman, or child was en route to Haiti with the best of intentions using their political clout to jump to the front of the line to land. As I've come to realize NGOs almost always have wonderful intentions but also happen to be the worst managed organizations on earth who too frequently not only don't achieve their intentions but actually worsen situations for the people most in need of help which I'll go into later.
The massive amount of air traffic pouring into Port au Prince caused delays made far worse by the fact that those planes having to circle for hours were out of fuel by the time they did land and couldn't refuel and leave as the fuel depot had been heavily damaged by the earthquake. Therefore, the stranded planes were soon blocking the runway as well.
Meanwhile I'm back on the tarmac at Pope AFB waiting for the Sergeant Major to receive his list sent from leadership already on ground in Haiti on what to put on the next plane such as troop transport trucks, bulldozers, up-armored humvees, etc. Also we were under very strict guidance to have precisely 3/4 of a tank of fuel in our vehicles as more caused big problems at flying altitude and fuel would be in short supply once we did land. We sat still on that tarmac for days on end waiting our turn. Since we were geared up for Haiti, we didn't have our winter uniforms so froze at night while sleeping seated in our vehicles whose heat we couldn't turn on as we couldn't burn fuel. Our fuel trucks were either already en route or being sent to the port for ship transport..
Many soldiers in the 82nd with more seniority than I had deployed 3 or 4 times and this would only be my 2nd deployment with my first now known as The Surge in Baghdad in January 2007. I had a female soldier with me and Army practice is always to keep females with other females or in my unit let 'Pappy' (as I was often called by my fellow soldiers usually less than half my age) babysit the new female arrivals since they knew there wouldn't be any fraternization issues. I was famously quoted in Iraq for saying: "Pappy's not even attracted to women under 30" ...which was met with not even a hint of protest.
Finally after about 4 days of waiting the Sargeant Major knocked on my humvee window in a cold rain and said "Pappy, your next..."
...to be continued
*I am always quick to point out that while the 82nd is very highly regarded, and deservedly so, the Army's very best are in Special Forces (designated by Groups of which there are 7) and Rangers divided into Regiments which are far smaller than a 'Division'. Both the Special Forces and Rangers draw from the 82nd's very best and it was always every good male soldier's ambition to eventually make it to SF or a Ranger Regiment. The HQ for Special Forces is also on Fort Bragg as is the most elite SF Group known as 'Delta Force' in which several of my former colleagues now serve.