Work progresses in Haiti for 823rd ESFS

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Bill Pember
  • 823rd Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron
Editor's note: This is part of weekly submissions from the 823rd Security Forces Squadron, who is currently providing security at the Toussaint L'Ouverture International Airport in Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince.

On Jan. 12, I was at home with my family like most people from the 823rd Security Forces Squadron, when our executive officer texted me about a meeting the next morning regarding a possible deployment to Haiti.

I turned the news on to see what had happened and learned about the devastating earthquake that struck Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital. At the time, I knew very little about Haiti, so I did some research in order to prepare for the meeting.

The next morning, we discussed the possibility of deploying some of our Airmen to Haiti. The original plan was to send enough forces to secure the airport and then call for backup if needed.

For the next seven days, squadron members spent their time preparing to leave, which meant receiving intelligence briefings, medical clearances, loading magazines and other requirements for a deployment.

The request for forces finally came and it was definite we were deploying to assist the citizens of Haiti.

On Jan. 20, the squadron sent our Airmen to Charleston Air Force Base, S.C., to catch a connecting flight to Port-au-Prince. After a 48-hour delay because of "traffic" problems, the group left the base and arrived the same day.

Arriving on the tarmac in Haiti was a sobering experience for all of us "Jesters." Around midnight, once leadership received a quick tour of the airport, the squadron was finally able to "hit the rack", which consisted of sleeping on the airport's grass for five hours.

The next morning everybody was busy working to either secure the airport or set up tents. The humanitarian effort had just started to hit its peak and an airplane was landing every 20 to 30 minutes with humanitarian aid, military members or relief workers.

One of the most significant events that first night and a foreshadowing of our duties to come, was an individual trying to board a military aircraft illegally. The quick response of our members prevented this, and in the first two nights, the 823rd Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron detained more than 60 individuals who were at the airport illegally.

As the days went by, we developed procedures, special instructions and identified the airport's security vulnerabilities, while still ensuring medical support, coordination with arriving military members and the safe evacuation of American citizens.

Our Airmen, who have trained for the past year for "outside the wire" missions in Afghanistan or Iraq, had to switch modes to a humanitarian mission and they completed their tasks with precision and excellence.

Although the days were long and the devastation was apparent, we received one good piece of news--Air Force Southern Command had designated us as the 823rd Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron. We were filled with pride because we were able to keep our unit designation.

After a week, the request came in for additional 823rd SFS Airmen who were on standby at Moody Air Force Base, Ga., plus a command and control element from the 820th Security Forces Group to provide command, control and security assistance to the government of Haiti.

Some of the challenges we faced in the first two weeks were minimizing the number of vehicles and personnel on the ramp while not slowing the incoming humanitarian aid. Our squadron also developed security procedures so the airport could return to normal international commercial operations.

To meet these challenges, we teamed up with the Haitian Airport Authorities, Haitian Police, United Nations, U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection, Transportation Security Administration and more than 13 other countries.

We also created a pass and identification Section to issue restricted area badges and vehicle passes to minimize the amount of personnel in the aircraft parking area. We started 24-hour joint patrols with Haitian National Police and joint entry control points with Haitian Airport Authorities to ensure our counterparts were taking an active role in their airport's security.

The days seemed to pass like weeks, but you could see the progress on the ramp and security at the airport was under control. Although the country was still deep in mourning, all countries and all agencies were heavily engaged in the effort to restore basic services to the people of Haiti.

As a security forces member, we usually don't get to see how our work affects people, but with this humanitarian mission, we witnessed it firsthand. Over the first few weeks of Operation Unified Response, our squadron accomplished a staggering amount of work.

Our squadron ensured the security and safety of 2,346 missions, 13,541 tons of cargo (humanitarian aid), 23,243 passengers evacuated (17,820 of which were American Citizens) and 8,468 deployed military and civilian members.

In addition, we also were charged to protect several distinguished visitors to include former President Bill Clinton, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and various congressional delegations. All this work helped ensure that the airport could resume international operations on Feb. 19, just 37 days after the catastrophic earthquake.

On behalf of the 823rd ESFS, I would like to thank the 23rd Medical Group for helping us during this process. They came in on a holiday at 5 p.m. and worked until 11 p.m. to make sure that our Airmen were ready to deploy.

This incredible task also couldn't have been accomplished without the help of our sister squadron, the 824th Security Force Squadron, the "Ghost Walkers." This is one of the few times that two of our squadrons from the 820th SFG came together and completed a tasking, a very difficult one at that.

The Ghost Walkers performed with professionalism and tenacity and for that our entire squadron is very thankful. The actions of not just the 823rd SFS, but the entire Moody community exemplify the first verse of the Airman's Creed, "I'm an American Airman, I'm a warrior, I have answered my nation's call."

It is an honor and privilege to be a Jester serving in the greatest Air Force, with the finest Americans; in the pursuit of restoring hope for a nation of eight million individuals who need our help.