U.S. Forces Wind Down Haiti Relief Efforts After the Jan. 12 earthquake hit, U.S. forces rushed in the help -- distributing food, digging drainage canals, reopening the airport and sending a hospital ship to provide medical assistance. Now, the military is packing up.

U.S. Forces Wind Down Haiti Relief Efforts

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

In a moment, we'll take to the skies for a joyful ride with wounded veterans. But first, we check in with the troops on the ground in Haiti, where the U.S. military is wrapping up its earthquake relief operation. The force, which peaked at roughly 22,000 troops in the weeks after the quake, now numbers less than 900. Most of them will be out of the country by the end of this month.

NPRs Jason Beaubien reports.

JASON BEAUBIEN: Navy Lieutenant Junior Grade Jamie McFarland used to be the camp manager at the sprawling golf course camp in Port-au-Prince, where tens of thousands of people have set up shacks on the steep greens.

(Soundbite of children)

BEAUBIEN: She gets mobbed by children and grownup residents as she shows off the system of trenches, sandbagged berms and drainage canals her team designed to direct storm runoff out of the camp.

Lieutenant Junior Grade JAMIE MCFARLAND (U.S. Navy): We call this the stairway to heaven. It's a really nice staircase with a trench down the middle of it. And all of these sandbags were filled with the dirt that was dug up to make it a little easier to navigate and also to allow the storm water some place to go.

BEAUBIEN: Lt. McFarland and the U.S. troops designed and oversaw the construction. Catholic Relief Services hired residents from the camp to do the digging and other hard labor. McFarland is now a minor celebrity in the camp.

Lt. j.g. MCFARLAND: They're used to me. They see me every day.


Lt. j.g. MCFARLAND: Oh. How are you?

Mr. HERARD: I mean, I thought everybody took off, man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BEAUBIEN: Allen Wilner Herard, who lives in the camp and worked with U.S. forces on some of the trenches, says all the other American soldiers seem to have gone.

Mr. HERARD: I don't see Hollywood.

Lt. j.g. MCFARLAND: You dont see Hollywood.

Mr. HERARD: I don't see Petty.

Lt. j.g. MCFARLAND: You dont see Petty.

Mr. HERARD: I don't see none of the guys. (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Lt. j.g. MCFARLAND: (Foreign language spoken) Pop right up.

Mr. HERARD: Glad to see you, man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BEAUBIEN: Herard says the drainage system has been a lifesaver at the golf course.

Mr. HERARD: When we first came here like, every time it rains it's like a pigpen.

BEAUBIEN: But, he says, Lt. McFarland's crew tackled this problem.

Mr. HERARD: They made canals, bridges, stuff that keep the water from getting to the people. It's wonderful, beautiful work. And everybody loved them.

BEAUBIEN: Herard says the U.S. troops are already missed. The drainage work at the golf course camp was just one part of the U.S. military's earthquake relief effort in Haiti. In the chaotic days after the 7.0 temblor flattened much of the capital, the 82nd Airborne was one of the first groups to set up mass food distributions.

The U.S. Air Force took over the crippled Port-au-Prince airport and reopened Haitian airspace. They were criticized by some aid agencies for favoring U.S. flights, a charge they deny. Navy and Army divers shored up piers at the port so relief shipments could come in by sea. The Navy brought a hospital ship into the harbor. In a matter of months, the Department of Defense spent almost a half a billion dollars on its operation in Haiti.

Major General Simeon G. Trombitas, who's in charge of U.S. forces in Haiti, says the American military's logistical expertise helped with the heavy lifting in the weeks after the quake.

Major General SIMEON TROMBITAS (Commander, Joint Task Force-Haiti): We're transitioning right now and we have done those things that immediately saves lives and alleviate human suffering.

BEAUBIEN: In an air-conditioned Army tent erected next to the U.S. Embassy, Gen. Trombitas says other relief agencies have now taken over and are better equipped to deal with this phase of the recovery.

Major Gen. TROMBITAS: We're moving on to the next phase to a more traditional engagement that we have in this country and countries throughout Latin America.

BEAUBIEN: When President Obama dispatched American troops to Haiti immediately after the quake, there was concern, particularly from some on the political left that this might lead to another complicated episode of Washington meddling with Haitian sovereignty. The U.S. occupied Haiti for two decades in the early part of the 20th century. American troops again intervened in the country in 1994 and 2004. But starting June 1st, the main American force in Haiti will be just 500 members of the National Guard, and they'll be deployed 100 miles from the quake epicenter in the northern city of Gonaives.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

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