Our Boys in Search of Fans
US troops endure hot, hot days and MREs, but are relieved at the warm Haitian welcome
TO join the Army is to see the world, though often its tougher side.
Take United States Staff Sgt. Olin Rossman. His last exotic assignment was Somalia. Now he's guarding the main port here in Haiti's capital city.
``The crowds are basically the same'' in both countries, he says. ``They stand outside the gate and wait for food and water and stuff like that. At least they're not shooting at us.''
In Somalia, three soldiers in his unit were wounded by gunmen. Here, the crowds have been overwhelmingly favorable. When Sergeant Rossman and the Army's 10th Mountain Division secured the main airfield here, the crowd ran alongside singing songs. ``I couldn't understand them, but apparently, they were very happy.''
Haiti's generally good reception of US troops was muted Tuesday by the US operation's first casualty, apparently from the discharge of his own gun. Given the fluid situation in Haiti, the Army's public stance is watchful. Troops peer out from behind barbed wire or atop the omnipresent Humvees (the extra-wide replacement for the jeep). Haitians are not frightened by this. They stare right back, sometimes for hours.
``It's the same people'' every day, says Sgt. Eugene Lang, who is guarding the main entrance to the airport from behind barbed wire and a wall of sandbags. ``I guess they're curious to see what Americans look like.''
In private, though, some of the soldiers grouse. They have had to build their accommodations from scratch. So little things just have to wait - like portable toilets.
Of course, that's what happens when you're shipping in 1 million meals and another million bottles of water. Something's bound to be forgotten. In a little over a week, the US military has brought in 11 million gallons of fuel and 4,000 military vehicles - a convoy that would stretch from Baltimore to Philadelphia.
``The sanitation situation is better today than it was,'' says Brig. Gen. Mike McDuffie, commander of the Army's Joint Logistics Task Force. The Army is buying thousands of dollars of lumber from local hardware stores to build its own portable toilets.
Meals for the troops are also supposed to improve soon. General McDuffie has ordained Oct. 13 as ``steak day,'' a welcome relief from the rations du jour, known as MREs (meals-ready-to-eat).
The size of the US military operation is similar to the one in Somalia. So are many conditions, especially the heat. Muggy days exceeding 90 degrees are tough. But try it in an Army uniform and full gear.
How does a soldier get used to the heat? ``You don't,'' says Mike Cahill, a first lieutenant with the 1-87th Infantry. ``But you bear with it.''
At least Lieutenant Cahill is spending the day inside, near a whirring air conditioner. (Admittedly, the machine generates more noise than cool.) Outside, the troops roast under the hot sun. When they're off their designated bases, they have to wear flak jackets as well, which adds more than 20 pounds and several degrees. ``It's heavy and it's very hot,'' Cahill says. ``It doesn't breathe.''
So it comes as no surprise one afternoon this week that US troops have pulled up to a local store. One soldier talks to a crowd of Haitians, while another stands guard over two Humvees. Their precious cargo: electric fans. Since many troops in the port are sleeping in huge warehouses, cooled only by the night breeze, the Army is buying fans locally to make Haitian nights a bit more bearable.
Is this a freelance operation? ``You could call it an official requisition,'' a soldier replies. For the troops, it's one more small step toward comfort.