Un Voyage à Haïti

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My friend Gina is leaving in two days for Haiti.

She is one of the Public Health Service Officers who works for us in our department. All our PHS officers are licensed  clinical social workers but Gina is the only native Creole speaker. Gina has on been in the PHS for 3 months and has not even been to basic training yet. Yet they expect her to report to Haiti in two days. They’ve only told her pack to her things.

They plan to use Gina solely as a translator. She grew up in a Creole speaking home in NY. They told her she would be gone a minimum of two weeks and a maximum, well they aren’t sure.

In the Army, no one goes on a deployment with a couple of key things; a packing list, a set of orders and immunizations. Gina’s had none of that. They’ve only given her a plane ticket to Toussaint International and a contact person. PHS doesn’t issue gear, they expect her to buy it. MO2 and I wrote her out a packing list and then pulled some of our own equipment she can use. Our house, seriously, is like an Army/Navy store. We gave her what we could (to include sleeping bags and a ruck) and sent her off to Walmart to buy the rest. MO2 is going to see if he can get her immunizations Tuesday morning (Post is closed for the holiday). Most important of all will be her yellow fever immunization (I hate that one, I’ve had x 4). Gina doesn’t even have a set of dog tags. Fortunately, you can have those made quickly around any military base. Tomorrow she will bring her rucksack and all her items over and MO2 or I will pack her ruck.

I’m stunned and saddened that the Public Health Service hasn’t prepared this officer for traveling. Conditions for US Forces are likely to be primitive at best yet they’ve done nothing to prepare her for this. Even our most junior soldier has an NCO who supervises their packing and medics who ensure immunizations are complete. To MO2 and I this lack of planning, leadership and supervision is incomprehensible. I’m glad we could be there to help because if we weren’t, I don’t know who would.

I’ve been to Haiti twice and to the Dominican Republic x3 (all in a military capacity). Haiti (unlike most places in the DR) is primitive all of the time unless you are very well off. Buildings there aren’t made of rebar (unless funded by the US government). They use tree branches and small logs as support. Before the Earthquake it was a squalid, corrupt place…I can only imagine now. Yet Haitians are a beautiful dignified people. Children may have one outfit but it is scrubbed, starched and ironed every day. While there on my first visit, I observed schools made out of woven pond fronds (like woven mats on a frame). That way, when the wet season comes, you just move the school to higher ground. There was one blackboard and the children would sit on the ground and practice their letters in the dirt.

Of course, not all of Haiti looks like this. Outside of Port Au Prince in Petionville, there are beautiful homes on hills leading up the mountain. I’ve read in the NYT about the destruction of the Hotel Montana. I went swimming there once on a patrol. In 1995, all the military in the area were invited to a Fourth of July Bash at the Ambassador’s residence. I wonder if it is still standing? One of routes would take us along a deforested desert where if you walked off the road you could see bones and the occasional skull (memories of the Papa Doc and subsequent Duvalier regimes).

Driving in Haiti is as colorful and memorable as it gets. The rule of the road is the biggest vehicle has the right of way. Most Haitians don’t own cars but use a system of privately owned buses called Taptaps. They are usually brightly colored with religious images and loud stereo speakers. They are also quite the sight to see with luggage tied to the outside and people hanging out the windows and sometimes on the roof. It is not uncommon to see people putting live chickens on the taptap floors in baskets. I always wanted to ride on one, but we were not allowed.

I’m sure Gina (once she gets there) will have a memorable time. There is nothing as fulfilling as disaster relief. People are happy to see you and rarely do you get shot at. MO2 has volunteered to go if they need a public health nurse. I’d go too, if I weren’t pregnant. There is so much to be done and I’m would be proud to do my part.

Bonne chance, Gina! Rester en sécurité!

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