823rd ESFS Airman reflects on responsibilities, progress in Haiti relief effort

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Daniel Diaz
  • 823rd Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron
Editor's note: This is a part of the weekly submissions from the 823rd Security Forces Squadron, which is currently providing security at the Toussaint L'Ouverture International Airport in Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince.

I was sitting around with my family the night before we were scheduled to deploy to Haiti and I had a lot of questions running through my mind.

What was I going to be doing when I got there? How long was I going to be gone away from my family? What kind of devastation was I going to see when I arrived?

My squadron, the 823rd Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron, had been tasked to provide airfield security at Toussaint L'Ouverture International Airport, Haiti's only international airport, located in the capital, Port-au-Prince.

This was going to be an extremely challenging task and it wasn't defined in terms of black and white; the shades of grey seemed to be endless. How would we transition from combat operations such as convoy operations, route clearances and military operations in urban terrain patrols to a humanitarian mission?

After our first few days on the ground in Haiti, it was easy to tell that the country was still in a state of chaos. You could see the hopelessness and confusion in the Haitians' eyes. It was our job, along with our sister services and countries, to help restore order and provide as much aid as we could to the people of Haiti.

Our squadron's mission was to secure the airport and ensure only authorized personnel were allowed entry inside, along with our Haitian counterparts. This was a very demanding task as there were so many relief agencies and foreign militaries operating out of the airport's confines.

We also had the responsibility of controlling the ramp on the airport, which when we first arrived was more like a sea of countries, relief organizations and Haitian airport employees than an active ramp for aircraft.

At first the mission seemed almost impossible. Through hard work, home station training and solid leadership, we had the airport secured and control over entry within a matter of days.

At that time, we all had no idea that it would take only 38 days to restore commercial operations to the airport.

Although the shades of grey seemed insurmountable, we were able to reduce the traffic on the ramp, team with the Department of State, United Nations, Homeland Security and Haitian Airport Authority officials to make it happen.

We locked down the ramp; only those authorized with proper credentials were let on.

Our Pass and Identification system, along with Haitian authorities and the Transportation Security Administration, was able to come up with a new system for issuing badges and vehicle passes to make it easier for our sentries standing post to identify authorized individual's trying to gain access to the area.

After the first two or three weeks, it seemed like we would never get a day off, but that didn't seem to matter. We had a mission to do. Secure the airport, resume commercial operations, and restore hope and a sense of pride within this small country.

We finally got our first day off, and discovered our efforts would stretch beyond the confines of the airport. There were many volunteer opportunities available, but the one that my fellow Airmen and I enjoyed the most was at the hospital set up inside the airport's compound.

On our days off, a lot of us volunteer to go down and help out in any way we can. Sometimes they need assistance with the patients and other times they simply need us to help organize their supply room.

Some of our Airmen also aided in the downtown area with other recovery efforts. Individuals also volunteered to assist in the search and recovery efforts for individuals that were still missing.

Although that was tough for many of us to do, we had many Americans and military members still trapped inside. The rescue effort was over, but we were able to recover the remains of one of our own Air Force officers and return him with honor, thanks to the help of many organizations including our own.

We never thought that we would be teaming up with so many departments, agencies, organizations, countries or local authorities during our deployment to Haiti. Our efforts with the Haitian National Police and Airport Security Agency proved to be invaluable. After all, we weren't here to take over the airport; rather we were here to support our Haitian partners, restore order and assist in getting the airport back to operating status.

It was a daunting task, but we managed to do it. My biggest thanks goes to our Haitian counterparts who stuck with us amid severe devastation and personal tragedy. They stood with us as we all provided support and assistance where needed.

It was a good day for us all, when they resumed their own operations and were able to accept commercial aircraft on their own.

They were down for a short period, but certainly proved they were not out. We were proud to hand over the post and patrols back to the Haitians to secure their own airport.

In an effort to assist the Haitians, we helped set up the new passenger terminal's screening systems to allow international aircraft back into the airport. As the days passed, our leadership and Airmen were able to continue forming close ties with other countries.

We supported the Canadian military in their effort to deliver aid to Haiti and repatriate Canadian citizens. After the completion of Operation SAFE RETURN, we contributed to more than 16,000 Americans being sent back to the U.S. and more than 25,000 multinational citizens receiving a safe ride home.

My fellow Airmen and I have taken great pride in helping stand up the international airport for commercial operations only 38 days after the devastating earthquake that took 200,000 lives.

After being down here and seeing the devastation first-hand, it has been a very humbling experience and it has made me appreciate all that I have back in the United States.

It has also made me very proud to be an Airman in the world's greatest Air Force and has allowed me to see how much good we can do when we come together for a good cause.

The effort put forth by so many countries for the good of Haiti, regardless of politics and social differences, was simply amazing. The combined effort in Operation UNIFIED RESPONSE was incredible and continues to be one of the best experiences of my life.