By By Sgt Tony Hawkins, Joint Forces Special Operations Component Command Public AffairsFebruary 22, 2010
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (Feb. 20, 2010) -- U.S. Special Operations servicemembers used their diverse backgrounds and skill sets to help a non-governmental organization deliver and set up nearly 100 tents for Haitian citizens living in a camp in Port-au-Prince.
The distribution was a joint operation between the 82nd Airborne Division, a U.S. Army Special Operations Command civil affairs team, and an NGO named Shelter Box, who provided the tents, which can house 3-6 people. Also included with the tents were blankets, a wood-burning stove, food, and a basic water purification system.
"Shelter Box and our team were able to distribute tents to most of the families that live here," said Capt. Mike, a U.S. Army civil affairs team leader. "We're making sure the ones we do have go to the neediest families first."
The captain explained that meant families with small children, the elderly and any other families that didn't have some kind of waterproofing, such as a large plastic tarp or tin roof.
An operation such as this, involving several dozen Soldiers and more than 100 Haitian citizens, was enhanced by the special skills and talents of U.S. Special Operations service members. For instance, Sgt. Nimchie, a member of the civil affairs information support team, is a native Creole speaker.
"Every time I speak to someone I hear, 'I knew you were one of us!' or 'Look, she even smiles like a Haitian," Sgt. Nimchie said.
Sgt. Nimchie, who was born in Haiti and moved to the U.S. at a young age, said she is honored and humbled to return to her birthplace to help displaced citizens.
"It really hits a chord with me, because this could have been me or my family," she said.
"I'm so fortunate for having grown up in the U.S., but I'm thankful I get to come back here to help in any way possible."
The ability to speak the language and understand the local culture are invaluable skills, and one Sgt. Nimchie said she gets plenty of opportunities to use during her current mission in Haiti.
"I'm able to speak to people to provide them with information and instructions during the distributions," she said. "People see me and recognize me as a Haitian, so it gets their attention. They feel comfortable talking to me, so I can find out their needs and relay them to the commander."
Although she did provide some information to the members of the camp, most of the instructions were given to local citizens by a familiar face, the camp's chief, with Sgt. Nimchie in the background assisting him. By receiving directions from someone the people already knew and trusted, the distribution of the tents went orderly and without incident.
During the distribution, medical personnel from a Latin American NGO arrived to provide treatment to the camp's citizens. Staff Sgt. Hansel, the civil affairs team sergeant and a native of the Dominican Republic, used his Spanish language skills to coordinate operations between the NGOs and his team.
Growing up so close to Haiti, Staff Sgt. Hansel came back to Hispaniola with a working knowledge of the countries and cultures of the island nations.
"This is my island," he said. "I know its history and understand the culture."
By providing better shelter to the families in the camp, the civil affairs team helped shift some basic priorities for people in the camps, so that residents can receive other aid by NGOs in the future, such as the Latin American doctors. The doctors currently have a longer term plan for the camp, which includes providing daily visits to treat any illnesses or injuries, while other NGOs regularly supply the camp with food and clean water.
After several hours, the distribution was completed without complications. As the tents were passed out, and after a quick lesson by a few U.S. Soldiers, Haitians began setting up the shelters on their own.
The delivery of improved shelters allows for a smooth transition of aid distribution for people living in this Port-au-Prince camp, which is now very close to being turned over to NGOs for continued humanitarian assistance.