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U.S. News

U.S. 82nd Airborne's "Beast" helps hungry Haitians

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - With his company’s Humvees still sitting at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Captain Sean Shields uses a rental car with an Avis “We Try Harder” sticker to ferry his soldiers on aid missions in Haiti’s earthquake-shattered capital.

The 2nd Brigade of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division started arriving in crippled Port-au-Prince a week ago with little more than what they could carry on their backs.

Captain John Chambers, 25, another member of the company, said he brought “rucksacks, an assault pack and a duffel bag.”

The company, known as “The Beast,” has about 50 of its 80 men in Haiti, part of a big U.S. military relief operation for quake survivors that has put added strain on U.S. armed forces already stretched thin by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Pentagon planners worry deployments in Haiti will stretch on for months.

Shields said he was told his men would stay in Haiti no less than 60 days and up to 6 months. “That’s nothing,” he said, compared to his 13-to-15 month tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Friday was the first time that Shields’s men distributed food and water. The distribution to a few hundred Haitians from a cluster of makeshift tents at a soccer field next to basketball courts started off smoothly.

“You don’t have to keep your hand on your weapons. Be friendly,” one of the officers told his men who tried to keep the crowd back and in lines.

“MOB WINS”

But as the crowd in hundreds surged forward and rushed a military truck, Shields said: “I wish I had an interpreter right now ... This is crazy. We just can’t do it with what we got. Trial and error.”

Some of his men screamed, “Get back” and “Get off”, to no avail. “We probably learned a lot,” Shields said. “I think we need more people” to control the throngs of hungry Haitians.

“The mob wins,” he said.

There are now more than 2,600 U.S. military personnel on the ground in Haiti, and around 10,500 more in a flotilla of U.S. ships offshore. By the weekend, that number on the ground will climb to 4,600 as troops fan out to help quake survivors.

The Beast set up camp in the belly of a steel-framed pavilion with open sides, a corrugated tin roof and gravel floors.

The 2nd Brigade came to the pavilion in the Tabarre neighborhood of Port-au-Prince to help eight Jordanian U.N. troops secure a World Health Organization-run warehouse containing some 80 tons of medical supplies.

One of the warehouse’s walls collapsed during last week’s earthquake. Security was beefed up to protect its contents against scavengers and looters.

The U.S. embassy in Haiti rented sports utility vehicles and one of those SUVs, a white Mitsubishi Montero with Avis plates and a rental car sticker on the back, shuttles the 2nd Brigade through Port-au-Prince’s debris-strewn streets.

Their camp is crude. A shortage of cots meant some sleep on the rocks. They have no portable toilets or generators.

On the streets, the soldiers wear camouflage and carry automatic rifles. “No body armor until somebody gets shot,” one explained.

HEARTS AND MINDS

Shields, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and took part in the military’s response to Hurricane Katrina that devastated New Orleans in 2005, said he preferred humanitarian missions.

Shields said Katrina was “easier” than Haiti. “Working with the international community has some challenges. That’s a diplomatic way of saying it,” he said.

The U.S. military believes much of the counter-insurgency training given to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, aimed at winning hearts-and-minds, can be applied to the Haiti mission.

When they saw some Haitians struggling to get their stalled car started, Shields and one of his men ran out to help.

Before leaving for Haiti, Chambers, the closest thing the company has to a French speaker, had his wife rush out to buy him an English-French dictionary. When asked how well he spoke the language, he shrugged and said “un peu” (a little).

During one stop, a Haitian wearing an Army T-shirt impressed the company with his excellent English and Shields said he wanted to offer him a job as translator. U.S. units have tens of thousands of dollars in cash to make such hires.

Top U.S. military officials acknowledge the relief operation for Haiti got off to a slow start. Some aid planes were turned away in the initial confusion.

But the situation has improved. Sergeant Major Jose Velazquez said between 140 to 160 planes with supplies and personnel were now landing at the overloaded Port-au-Prince airport per day, up from 13 per day before the quake.

The number peaked on Saturday with 240 flights. Still, the waiting list for flights to get in tops 1,400.

Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Philip Barbara

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