Monday, January 25, 2010

Marines studied their own history in Haiti

GRAND-GOAVE, Haiti — The 100-ton landing craft turned on its air jets and rose slowly out of the brush. It hovered briefly on the shore, pivoted on a cushion of air and headed out to sea.

The dust and dirt kicked up by the air jets turned to sea spray as the craft flew seamlessly from shore to sea, skimming across the water.

"I've never seen anything like that in my life," said Jaques Ado, as the hovercraft, called a Landing Craft Air Cushion, or LCAC, disappeared over the horizon.

Ado, 63, was among dozens of Haitians who watched the massive hovercraft Friday on a beachhead established by U.S. Marines who arrived off the coast last week. Since arriving, The Marines have moved tons of food and water ashore for aid groups to carry away in trucks to survivors of the Haiti earthquake Jan. 12.

It's not the Marines' first time in Haiti. Troops were here in 2004 to prevent massacres in the wake of the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Haiti is a major part of Marine Corps lore for other reasons.

The Corps governed Haiti from 1915 to 1934 after an invasion force was sent to prevent an anti-American dictator from assuming power. Young, non-commissioned officers governed Haiti with little supervision.

The Marines were reminded of that history as they prepared for the Haiti mission, said Lt. Col. Gary Keim, who commands a logistics battalion.

"We were required to reread it," he said. "We've been here before. We've been successful before."

The Marines viewed those years as a model for nation building and counterinsurgency strategy. Many Haitians viewed it as imperialism. Roads, bridges and schools were built during the U.S. occupation, but that did little to help Haiti govern itself.

"When they came in 1915 it wasn't acceptable," said Paul St. Jean, 31, who watched the Marines land. "This is different. They come to help."

About 4,000 sailors and Marines have been deployed to Haiti, bringing total military troops here to about 17,000. There are about 11,000 troops and police from the United Nations as well, but some Haitians prefer U.S. troops.

U.N. troops "do not help us enough," St. Jean said.

The Marines have moved into the outskirts of Port-au-Prince to protect aid convoys from theft and riots. Keim says security has been good.

"Wherever they know the Marines are around, they (local residents) believe security will be provided," Pvt. James Cyrille said.

This section of shoreline in Grand-Goave, west of Port-au-Prince, is a tough site for an amphibious landing. Steep mountains come right down to the shoreline. Marines brought hovercraft ashore at a narrow opening where a stream empties into the ocean.

Hand-carved wooden canoes sit on the beach. Homes of concrete with corrugated tin roofs line the shore.

The need in this part of the island is great. Small towns nestled between the mountains and coast have been nearly flattened. Most of the aid has flowed into Port-au-Prince.

"We are poor people," Ado said. "Maybe they are here to help us. Maybe life can change for us."

The Marines may be here doing relief work for some time.

"We've been told we'll be here indefinitely," Keim said.

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