By Paul Steven GhiringhelliMarch 25, 2010
The director of the American Red Cross on Fort Drum answered a unique call to duty in January after he was asked to help spearhead an emergency trip of 69 translator volunteers to the earthquake-ravaged nation of Haiti.
"It's very few times in your career that you get the opportunity to actually go somewhere and realize that you were instrumental in saving people's lives," said Mark Hooper, Fort Drum's American Red Cross station manager, whose helicopter landed on the U.S.N.S. Comfort hospital ship off the coast of Haiti one week after the Jan. 12 quake.
More than 200,000 Haitians have been confirmed dead so far in what is considered one of the deadliest earthquakes on record.
Hooper, who regularly works and deploys with military personnel, said he and three other military-based American Red Cross colleagues were handpicked by U.S. Southern Command to escort Creole-speaking volunteers to Port-au-Prince.
He said it was the first such operation of its kind in American Red Cross history.
Composed of all ages, the group of translators left their jobs as doctors, lawyers, janitors, actors and stay-at-home mothers to help their former countrymen.
"Some of them had to take five weeks off from their jobs," Hooper said. "Those guys are the ones who really deserve the praise.
"Some of the older ladies," he added, "they just kept trucking, every day, no complaints, and they just put us younger ones to shame."
Hooper said the translators worked grueling 12-hour shifts by the bedsides of extremely injured Haitians who were pulled from the rubble and flown to the U.S.N.S. Comfort, the only hospital ship in Haiti.
"It was their people," he said. "There was (unspeakable) suffering. There were people who were deformed, people who were burnt, people who were wounded beyond description."
For days after the catastrophic earthquake, Roodly Guerrier, a Haitian-American school teacher from New York City, said he was overwhelmed with "a profound sense of helplessness" as news reports from Haiti flashed across his TV screen.
It motivated him to call the American Red Cross and volunteer as a Creole-English translator. He would eventually meet up with Hooper in Miami and spend more than a month on ship helping survivors and doctors communicate.
"The most difficult part of my time in Haiti ... was having to tell family members in Creole that their critically injured loved ones were dying or that a leg or an arm - sometimes both - would have to be amputated in order to save their lives," Guerrier said.
Hooper and his colleagues arranged for the volunteers' travel, meals, lodging and work schedules and closely monitored their mental health.
"You're putting (these volunteers) in an extreme situation," he said. "You could see it when one person was getting to a (breaking) point - it was clear as day. So we would do our rounds every day and talk to our translators and make sure they were OK."
At the height of the trauma, Hooper said the U.S.N.S. Comfort was the busiest hospital in the world, with a new patient arriving every six minutes.
"The worst of the worst were sent to the Comfort," he said. "The volunteers, God bless them - they would work 12-hour shifts and then go somewhere else and help out more."
In all, 82 translator volunteers for the American Red Cross would help hundreds of hurt Haitians receive treatment, including 850 surgeries.
Hooper said one of the saddest things he saw in Haiti involved the amputation of a tiny newborn's arm. He said the instrument doctors used looked like scissors from an office desk.
"The pediatric ward was the toughest, because you get attached to those kids," he said. "It's almost impossible not to get attached to the kids if you see them every day."
The day after the quake, the American Red Cross sent an immediate $1 million of aid to Haiti and launched a U.S. State Department-sponsored campaign allowing individuals to send $10 donations by texting "Haiti" to 90999.
In a two-month progress report issued earlier this month, American Red Cross officials announced more than $100 million of aid had been spent in Haiti of the $354 million raised to date.
Hooper said the disaster marked the first time American Red Cross members were involved in an emergency operation aboard a hospital ship since the Vietnam War.
The U.S.N.S. Comfort is one of two U.S. Navy hospital ships. It holds 1,000 beds and 12 operating rooms.
In addition to providing global emergency aid and nearly half of the U.S. blood supply, the American Red Cross handles emergency leave requests for service members and their Families and helps administer funds to Warrior Transition Units.
Before arriving at Fort Drum in July 2008, Hooper worked as an American Red Cross staff member in Germany, Bosnia, Korea, Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan.
But he said nothing compared to the destruction he witnessed while in Haiti.
"I don't know if anyone's ever seen a disaster (of) this magnitude," he said. "You looked down the street, and there wasn't a single building standing. It was just devastated. I hope I never see anything like that again."
He said it will take a lot more money and effort, but that the capability for correctly building Haiti's infrastructure exists.
"That gives people hope," he said. "I talked to a lot of Haitians who try to see a possible silver lining in the opportunity to rebuild, which wasn't there before."
Guerrier also said he saw hope for Haiti.
"The most rewarding experience for me was simply being there to see the patients smile and talk of their optimism for the uncertain future that awaited them in Haiti," he said.
"Believe it or not, I encountered quite a few patients, among them children, who expressed that unwavering sense of optimism for the future," Guerrier continued. "Their courage, determination and optimism have in many ways given me strength and a newfound sense of priority in my own life. For that, I thank all of them."