Reporter Follows U.S. Soldiers On Haiti Disaster Relief Duty

American soldiers have been an important part of Haiti relief efforts. Journalist Seth Robson of the publication Stars and Stripes is embedded with one of the American units still in Port-au-Prince, the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit. Host Michel Martin speaks with Seth Robson about his reporting, and what he is seeing on the ground in Haiti.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now wed like to take a look at another country dealing with the aftermath of a devastating earthquake. Yesterday, Haitis President Rene Preval was in Washington to meet with the U.S. President Barack Obama, and President Obama used the occasion to remind everybody of the scope of the disaster in Haiti.

President BARACK OBAMA: Its as if the United States in a terrible incident lost nearly eight million people or its as if one-third of our country, 100 million Americans suddenly had no home, no food or water. That gives you a sense, relative to the populations, what has happened in Haiti. No nation could respond to such a catastrophe alone.

MARTIN: A key part of the U.S. response has come in the form soldiers on the ground, whove done everything from distribute food to clearing rubble to offering medical care. Some 20,000 were there last month, thats down to about half that number now, both on the ground and at sea. But we wanted know more about the experience of the troops in Haiti, so we called Seth Robson of the independent military newspaper Stars and Stripes. Hes embedded with one of the units still working in the Port-au-Prince area, the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, and hes with us now. Welcome, thanks for joining us.

Mr. SETH ROBSON (Reporter, Stars and Stripes): Hi, there.

MARTIN: What kind of assignments has the unit taken on since it arrived in Haiti?

Mr. ROBSON: I got here about two and half weeks ago, and it was six weeks after the quake. Some of the missions that I went on included rubble removable. If youre in downtown Port-au-Prince where a lot of the buildings have fallen over, streets that were maybe four lanes wide were just maybe a few yards wide, to where maybe a single vehicle or people could walk, just between these huge piles of rubble where multistory building had collapsed. And so, a lot of these (unintelligible) were out here with bulldozers and things just pushing that rubble to the side so that traffic could move.

MARTIN: Some of the things, though, that weve seen the military do are things that you think perhaps civilians could do, like distribute food and things of that sort. So, why - is there a particular need for the military at this point to do some of these jobs, and if so, why?

Mr. ROBSON: Well, Ive seen that the military is still doing the kind of projects that basically civilians, civilian contractors or aid organizations Id assume that they would be the people that would normally do that kind of work. Why are the soldiers still doing it? I think theyre still here, and theyre looking for something to occupy their time, you know. Why the soldiers are still here, thats something that you might have to ask the higher-ups for their thinking on that. One thing Ive heard is that thats reassuring for the population, for the local government people to have that military presence here. I havent seen any significant security threats that theyd be here to deal with.

MARTIN: Well, that leads to the question I was going to ask, is, how are people reacting to the presence of the U.S. military there? Of course, you, Im sure, you know that this is a country that was occupied by the U.S. for nearly 20 years at the early 20th century. And so were told that theres some ambivalence about that. Can I just ask what youre seeing in terms of how people are reacting.

Mr. ROBSON: I havent seen any sort of animosity towards the U.S. troops here. In fact, Id say that the population is overwhelmingly extremely positive and friendly. I see people smiling and cooperating with the troops and, you know, everyone I talk to says theyd like us to stay.

MARTIN: Hmm. And you reported last week on an incident where there was gunfire between Haitian police and looters, the people they said were looters, and some bullets hit the tents that were occupied by U.S. troops. Is safety still a concern on this mission or is that, you think, an isolated event?

Mr. ROBSON: Oh, I think thats an isolated event. From what Ive seen, I see virtually no crime in the streets here in Haiti. I feel safer wandering around here than Id feel probably in some places in the Western world.

MARTIN: How are the troops responding to being there? How do they feel about the work that theyre doing there?

Mr. ROBSON: I think theyre proud, rightfully, for the work that theyve done to help these people in such a terrible time. I bet the guys on the ground would love to go home and see their families again. And, you know, they havent got a date when theyre going to re-deploy and go home. And, you know, Im sure theyre all just hanging out for that time when they can get home and see their families.

MARTIN: And you also talked about sort of a lot of the creativity that the military is employing in fulfilling their mission. You wrote about at point they were distributing aid, and the crowd was getting a little restive, and what did they do?

Mr. ROBSON: Yeah. There were some guys from the psychological operations unit attached to the 82nd Airborne. Theyre actually using music for crowd control, which I thought was pretty innovative.

MARTIN: What did they play?

Mr. ROBSON: ...these units. Well, theyre just playing Western pop songs. That seems to be the most popular type of music, and thats the kind of thing that you hear on the local radio stations here. Theyve got a Humvee which is equipped with a sound system and when theyre standing out there on the lines where theyre trying to keep people back from the work that the soldiers are doing, theyll just play the music. And I saw it saw it one day and it definitely seemed to have a calming effect. The people that were on the other side of the barrier, I could see a few of them sort of nodding their heads and singing along with the music. And then there was one guy that was really into and, you know, he was pulling out few dance moves there.

MARTIN: Was he really? What were they playing?

Mr. ROBSON: They played a bit of Michael Jackson, I think Akon, and Wyclef Jean, who is obviously the Haitian musician.

MARTIN: Okay. You heard it. Michael Jackson, Akon, Wyclef Jean, obviously that - there you go. So, finally, before we let you go, I noticed that youd been you have a lot of experience being embedded with troops and working overseas. Youve spent a lot of time in Iraq and Afghanistan. And I was wondering how this compares, just in terms of what youre seeing. Obviously, maybe the stress of being there isnt as great, I would imagine. But just in terms of what youre seeing, in terms of the devastation, can you tell us how it compares?

Mr. ROBSON: Well, I can tell you that in my time in Iraq and Afghanistan Ive seen people injured by bombs or shocks or bits of bodies after bombings, but over here theres actually bodies lying around in the streets. You know, even seven weeks after the earthquake, theres still dead bodies lying in the streets. So, thats something that I think a lot of these soldiers who havent actually deployed before, you can say they dont have combat actions, and so thats something that theyll have to deal with, you know, seeing all that death and destruction. But there isnt really the security threat. So, I think, you know, when soldiers are going out, they dont have to wear the heavy gear that they wear in Iraq and Afghanistan, the (unintelligible) black helmets and their body armor, and so that makes it a lot easier on their bodies and, obviously, you know, theres no stress of thinking that maybe one of your buddies was going to be blown up or killed. So that would make the emotion a little bit easier to deal with.

MARTIN: Okay. Seth Robson is a journalist for Stars and Stripes, thats an independent publication that covers military affairs. Hes embedded with the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit in Haiti, and he joined us from a phone from there. We thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. ROBSON: Thanks a lot.

MARTIN: If you want to know more about what the troops are doing in Haiti, you can go to npr.org where youll find a link to Seth Robsons reporting and photo slide shows.

MARTIN: And thats our program for today. Im Michel Martin, and youve been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Lets talk more tomorrow.

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