The U.S. military response to the January earthquake in Haiti was almost immediate.
Within hours, equipment, supplies and personnel began to arrive in Haiti to assist those affected by the earthquake and its aftershocks.
Many Air National Guard units and personnel were among the first to respond to the disaster.
For some, it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Air Force Staff Sgt. Oscar Trevino of the 190th Civil Engineering Squadron of the Kansas Air National Guard was with his unit in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as part of its two weeks of annual training.
“People said they felt the earthquake,” said Trevino. “I grew up in Southern California, and I didn’t feel anything. I just rolled over and went to bed. Sure enough, we found out the next day they had a massive earthquake over here.”
Trevino’s unit arrived here a week later.
“We waited for a week to get transportation,” he said. “Really, they needed us as soon as they could so we could get the camp going and get the other people housed.”
When Trevino first arrived in Haiti, service members were sleeping wherever space was available.
“The first week I slept on some lumber, because I didn’t want to sleep on the ground,” he said.
Building a tent city is a bit more involved than simply erecting a few tents. It means leveling ground and setting up living, shower and laundry areas.
“We initially brought in what is called a ‘550 kit,’ which consists of tents and will house roughly 550 personnel,” said Trevino. “We were at the north end of the airport, and it was nothing but tall grass. And we came in with our heavy equipment and leveled the place. We put up tents and then our shower and laundry and built it up to as you see it today.”
These operations are all part of what a civil engineering squadron does.
“When we hit the ground in an expeditionary or contingency environment, our job is to set up a bare base,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Craig Bradford, commander of the 118th CES in Nashville, Tenn., and commander of the 24th Expeditionary CES in Port au Prince, Haiti. “So, if we have a water source and an airfield, we’ll come in and bring in all the material to build a tent city.”
But that still means hitting the ground running.
“We got here Jan. 29, and I haven’t had a day off since then,” said Bradford. “But we’ve been working hard to build a tent city for all the joint members in the task force.”
Members of Bradford’s squadron have been responsible for building more than a tent city. They worked on other projects around the airport and were directly involved with getting it re-opened to commercial traffic on Feb. 19.
“We built a diversionary road around the airport, otherwise traffic would be worse than what it already is,” said Bradford. “We also fixed a water leak that was just outside the major terminal that was going to be used for the commercial re-opening. Without our work, that terminal would not have opened at all.”
They also fixed the landing lights on the runway.
“The airfield lighting has gone down multiple times while we’ve been here,” said Bradford. “The first night it happened, the president of Haiti couldn’t even make it in. They had to divert his flight to another Caribbean island and our folks stayed up until that system was working and ready to go and he landed in the morning.”
The squadron’s ability to get the airfield lights back up and operational came about, in part, because of the civilian backgrounds of many of the squadron members.
“From the civil engineering standpoint, most of our folks are craftsmen on the outside,” said Bradford. “They have the abilities and they are working in the crafts. They’re carpenters, they’re electricians. Those are some of the unique qualities that the active duty force doesn’t have that we bring in our squadron.”
Because many buildings within the city have been destroyed or damaged by the earthquake, local residents have been wary of returning to their homes or entering various structures, said Bradford.
So, the squadron provided structural assessments of those properties “to give people the warm and fuzzy that they can go back and live where they lived before and that’s just as important as providing food and water,” said Bradford.
Providing these services is what makes the mission worthwhile. “Morale has been fantastic,” said Bradford. “This is a different sort of mission than going to Iraq or Afghanistan. If the shops can afford to lose a few folks during the week, then we go ahead and send them out on a mission to help an orphanage or work in the clinic or wherever we can.”
And that’s all part of the squadron’s mission.
“There was a humanitarian mission before the earthquake and there will be one long after,” said Bradford. “At most, we can put a dent in it. We’re here to help as much as we can.”
Story by Staff Sgt. Jon Soucy