Ok, I went to Haiti. Like all of us, I was shocked and saddened at the first news reports coming out of Haiti after the devastating earthquake on Jan 12, 2010. I watched the news in disbelief and could only imagine what the Haitian people were going through. I was watching for the first news photographs to come out of Port au Prince, when I got an IM from an old friend.
“Hey, you want to go to Haiti?”
Well, um, of course. Even though I had not covered too much news in the last few years, it is still in my bones. And this was/is going to be one of, if not the, biggest story of the year. Seems my friend who is a DC photog has some ‘in’ with a few military folks and they were heading down to help relief efforts. All we had to do at that point was get to San Juan, where the Air Force was staging and we would be good to go. Not wanting to go without an outlet for the photos, we scrambled to try to get some guarantees. Seems I don’t carry much weight in the photojournalism circles these days, and it was hard going. And most of the organizations that would be hiring photogs already had folks on the ground or en route. We were all set to go, and I bought a one way ticket to San Juan for the next day when things fell through. As with most military plans, they are fluid, they change all the time. Well, his contacts changed and couldn’t really help us out. Now I am more or less itching to go. I put some time into this and really wanted to go and bear witness, be a part of the story, do whatever I could to help. I decided to try something that had worked in the past for me and called up the Public Affairs Office of the 82d Airborne Division. Found out the Division would be sending down a few thousand troops. I asked if there was room for a journalist to come along. This is called being ‘embedded’ or a ‘ride along’ program. I was told there would be, my credentials were checked out, and I was told to wait for the call. So, I waited and waited and waited. I also got myself out on the embed list for SOCOM, which went very well, but I still have not heard from them! After about 10 days I had just about given up and was getting back on with real life when, of course, I got the call from the 82d. Told to be at Bragg Monday morning, so I was, but the flight was delayed until Thursday at 7am. Fayetteville is not that exciting. But next thing I know I am walking towards a 767 with about 350 soldiers, on our way to Haiti.
So, I wake up and it is screaming sunlight and hot as hell. We were on the ground. I could almost not believe it. The damage is right there on the walls of the terminal, cracks running every which way and you try to imagine what kind of force can do that. There were 9 journalists total, myself, a 2 person TV crew from Savannah, a 3 person TV crew from Raleigh, a one man producer for CBS News and 2 other still photogs from High Point. We were all assigned to different units within the brigade. I was assigned to the 2/319th AFAR, a field artillery unit. After gathering up our stuff it was off to the FOB ( forward operating base ). I was thinking I would get there hang out for a day or two, get my bearings, then switch to a line unit. Well it was apparent right away that this FOB was the one to be at. They had scouted by air and ground and found an equestrian stable and the owner was very happy to share his space with the troops. So they had moved in. I was on the ground for about 10 minutes at the FOB when Cpt. Alexander came up and asked if I wanted to go on a HA ( humanitarian aid ) mission. I dropped my pack, grabbed the cameras, and off I went. It was my first real look at the situation. It is as awesome and awful as you can imagine. Buildings just flattened, and you know that every one of those buildings has bodies still in the rubble. There were tents set up on almost every open piece of land, and by tents I mean everything from bomb proof 10 person shelters to tarps to bed sheets strung on a wire. There were people everywhere, and I mean everywhere. Just like you would expect in a capitol city. The markets seemed to be back up and running, more or less. We made our way to a distribution point where the 82d was providing security. The way it works is like this – the NGO’s go into a camp and find a camp ‘leader’ and with his help they identify how many people need rice. Then they give out rice coupons to the women in the camp. It was determined that having the men in the lines and receiving the aid was troublesome for a few reasons – from violence to the children not receiving the food. The women then would show up at the distribution point the next morning at sunrise and World Vision would hand out a 55lb bag of rice to each woman. A couple of hours before this the 82d would go in and start to clear and secure the DP. Then they would hold back the crowds and just keep order. This would happen at many different points in the morning and then again in the afternoon sometimes if more rice was freed up. The 82d is very respected in Haiti, and there were only minor incidents. The people just kept order.
I got back to the Black Falcon FOB and someone had set up a cot with a bug net for me under a pavilion amongst the officers of the group. I’m not usually used to hanging out with officers, being a former Sergeant, but this was a great group of guys. All of them from the Colonel to the privates were all very nice to me and many went out of their way to make sure I got where I needed to go and that I was included on missions. The guys have a special skepticism of the media, many of them having been burned before by quotes taken out of context and reporters with agendas. I was just there to shoot what was happening I told them. These guys were doing their job so well, it got to be a little stale visually. I told them that I wasn’t there to make them look bad at all, but that if anything got out of hand I would be shooting it and that those pictures would certainly be selling. They thought that was fair enough. And once they found out that I had been one of them, they all seemed to relax a bit. So my days at first consisted of getting up and going out on a HA run in the morning, but after a few days of that I knew I had gotten all I was going to get from those and I needed to sleep in as I was not sleeping well at all in the heat and humidity. There were runs to the stores, to tent cities, to pick up relief supplies, to hospitals, orphanages, etc. I went out whenever I could. The best things were the foot patrols through the city. That it how you really get to see a place, by walking. We would run thru the tent cities that they were responsible for, just to make sure it all looked safe and to see what the NGO’s had done…new sanitation? New water points? Then we would go thru the markets and look for the rice and other aid that had been given out. They were not looking to get anyone in any trouble, just wanted to check the prices, to see what it was going for on the streets. That way they could help judge when it was reaching a saturation point as prices fall. I ventured out on my own a few times and never felt threatened. I was yelled at by a couple of old ladies near a water point, but I just moved on. After 8 days of this I decided I wanted to change my view, I was going to go to the journalist hotel and work from there. But then I decided that I had had enough and needed to get back to Charlotte. I was hot, sweaty, sick ( outer ear infection ), tried of drinking warm water and eating MRE’s, although that chicken breast with jalapeño cheese spread on a wheat snack bread is pretty good! The city was returning to a normalcy. I did leave right before the ’Days of Mourning’ and if I had known about that I would have stuck around for that. I didn’t get to the worst hit areas. I stayed mostly in the areas where the guys I was with were working, Citi Soleil and Citi Militaire. At first I was bummed and upset that I wasn’t seeing it all. I felt like I had only done part of the story. But then I realized I could not do it all in 8 days. So I mentioned that I was going to head out and within 5 minutes the word came down that I better get to the airport now to catch a flight out in an hour. That was a whole other adventure. It turns out that some Air Force Colonel decided that civilians, even embedded civilians could not fly back to Bragg/Pope so I had to get on whatever plane they told me to get on. Great. I ended up in Charleston SC, had to rent a car at midnight, drive a couple of hours, crash at a hotel, drive to Bragg, drop car off, get cab to my car then drive home! It took about 24 hours with some much needed sleep and iced tea involved.
All in all I think it was a good experience. I shot some good photos, nothing earth shattering like the work coming out of Haiti from the first week after the quake, but not bad over all. I was covering a story that was not being covered. On all the missions I went on, over 15, I never saw another journalist, not even the ones I came in with. These soldiers from the 82d were busting ass, working hard to get this aid out and doing a great job of it. They were not only providing security, but they were also coordinating with the NGOS and all the people who need help in their AO ( area of operation ). Because these guys were on the ground and out walking and talking to people, they know the area like no other. They would make lists of the camps and orphanages and what was at each one and what each one needed, from food, to clothes, to medical to building assessments, and then they would meet up with the heads of the NGO’s and pass along this info so that they knew where to go with their aid. It is good work. It should be known. These guys are usually on TV or in the news when something goes wrong. Well this is a story of how it all goes right and no one is telling it.
I would love to go back and make all the shots I am thinking of now, that I missed. If you know of anyone looking for someone with experience in Haiti, please pass my info along.
Now here are some pix, a mix of PJ shots and snap shots:
my bunk -
A huge 18 foot projection screen was brought in for the Super Bowl
A child asks for anything from the guys on patrol. They were not allowed to give anything to the people and while these are tough, battle tested dudes, it broke some of their hearts, even if they deny it now!
Carrying away the rice. These ladies could carry anything on their heads, anything!
checking for rice coupons
a helper on patrol
A Specialist keeping watch
beans and grains and rice, oh my!
Trash is everywhere, just piling up.
Animals, like this pig, roam free throughout the city. I saw ducks, loads of chickens, pigs, goats and cattle.
Crazy busses EVERYWHERE!
A sergeant stops the line of people heading for rice.
destruction everywhere you looked. One block would be complete flat then the next would only have 1-2 buildings damaged.
Two young boys. Note their toy cars, it is a plastic bottle with bottle caps for wheels pulled by a string.
trying to get a shelter up before a rain comes.
on patrol passing a damaged building.
Children in a tent city wait to be seen by an Army medic.
Spec. Bellinger, a native Haitian waves to some kids while on patrol.
Enterprising folks created cell phone charging stations with small generators and power strips. EVERYONE has a p hone in Port au Prince.
Patrolling through a tent city.
This dude freaks me out. Must be some kind of voodoo thing.
Waiting in line for a Shelter Box.
Keeping watch while resting on what used to be a school.
Waiting for rice.
Bags of rice
Children in a tent city play with homemade toy kites.
Children in a tent city
A child smiles.