CARREFOUR, Haiti --
Working alongside United Nations Sri Lankan Army soldiers, 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit Marines ensured Adventist Development and Relief Agency volunteers safely and efficiently dispensed rations to Haitians beginning Feb. 2.
“This is the first time that we’ve worked with the Marines and without the Marines things here wouldn’t have gone as easily and smoothly,” said Kelvin Riveas, area coordinator, ADRA. “The Marines have been able to get the flow, control, and structure that we needed to move along with our operation.”
Mortarmen from 81mm mortar platoon, Weapons Company, BLT 1/9, 24th MEU, spent a full day rehearsing security drills and fortifying the site prior to the opening day of distribution. Residing in an area covered in metal refuse and scrap car parts, Marines turned abandoned junk into barricades and serpentine isles outside the distribution site.
“We used what we could find around the area we’re living in to build and secure this site. The location where food was going to be handed out had to be well protected and we also had to make an area for people to wait in line for their food,” said Lance Cpl. Taylor F. Lohmann, mortarman, 81mm mortar platoon, Weapons Company, BLT 1/9, 24th MEU. “It was important to get this place safe and in order, not only for the Marines and [volunteers], but also for the locals outside waiting for food.”
Trained as the MEU’s Airborne Tactical Recovery of Aircraft and Personnel team, ready to deploy as at moment’s notice, 81mm mortar platoon Marines’ versatility made them a primary choice to organize Haiti’s Distribution Site 16 in Carrefour.
“These Marines have done a [pre-deployment cycle] where they’re ready for anything and the first thing we are called in to do is humanitarian assistance,” said Gunnery Sgt. Steven Howk, platoon sergeant, 81mm mortar platoon, Weapons Company, BLT 1/9, 24th MEU. “This just shows Marines’ versatility to either help provide assistance, vice the normal image of Marines in conventional warfare.”
Marines and Sri Lankan soldiers were responsible for maintaining order as ADRA volunteers remained focused on handing out food safely and without incident.
“Carrefour is one of the main districts of Port-au-Prince where people are in great need of food and water, and we are giving rice bags to more than 1,500 people every day for the next 14 days,” said Plinio Vergara, area coordinator, ADRA.
ADRA received the rice from the World Food Organization and each 25 kilogram rice bag can feed a family of five for approximately 15 days. Haitians obtained color coded coupons from officials to enter the distribution site and retrieve their bags of rice. Marines ensured locals had the appropriate coupon, filtering those that were counterfeit.
Marines deftly handled a growing crowd outside the site. They kept spectators in staging areas away from oncoming traffic, while ensuring everyone with a ticket safely entered the distribution site.
Some of the people outside the site came to find out how they can get rice, but most of the locals were just curious and watched the Marines because they’ve never seen people of their color before, said Regina, ADRA volunteer and Port-au-Prince native.
Despite being strangers in a foreign land, Marines and Haitians quickly established a mutual respect.
“At first when they dealt with us, the Haitians viewed us as aggressive and they were timid and [confrontational],” said Lance Cpl. Brandon Whitehead, mortarman, 81mm mortar platoon, Weapons Company, BLT 1/9, 24th MEU. “Once they notice that we are here to help them, they smile and became more welcoming. They see that we’re helpers, not just fighters and that is what the Marine Corps is all about.”
Since arriving, Weapons Company has been a versatile asset, adapting to ADRA’s every need.
“The Marines have been able to accommodate us in any way or form that we’ve asked and they’ve definitely been a blessing to our organization,” said Riveas. “Being down here in Haiti is a mission and with the help from everyone, we’ll accomplish the mission.”