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Save lives, mitigate human suffering

HAITI - Lt. Col. Kevin K. Callies, 114th Fighter Wing comptroller, and his staff are surrounded by many of the local children they are deployed to help in Haiti when they visited an orphanage there on May 16.  The children surrounded the military members and began to sing Hallelujah upon seeing the task force members arrive. (Photographer unknown - released)

HAITI - Lt. Col. Kevin K. Callies, 114th Fighter Wing comptroller, and his staff are surrounded by many of the local children they are deployed to help in Haiti when they visited an orphanage there on May 16. The children surrounded the military members and began to sing Hallelujah upon seeing the task force members arrive. (Photographer unknown - released)

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- I have recently returned from a mission that was like nothing I have ever experienced before. The Joint Task Force-Haiti was a humanitarian mission where the main focus was to save lives and mitigate human suffering. When I volunteered, I knew it was going to be an interesting mission and I knew the working and living environment would be an experience of a lifetime. This was reinforced when I received the reporting instructions. Initially, I was told to bring my own tent, bug screens, baby wipes to shower with, and a sleeping bag.

Working the J8 Resource Directorate in Haiti was indeed the experience I was expecting and more. I was given a crash course in Army finance and along the way I read Congressional and finance guidance on Overseas Humanitarian Disaster Assistance and Civic Aid Appropriation. OHDACA is an appropriation that allows commanders to provide life-saving, immediate assistance for a disaster and will reimburse their O&M to ensure that their command-readiness is not impacted. For this mission, we used Army Operations & Maintenance out of Army South to front the costs, but everything we purchased needed to be under the legal authority of OHDACA. Basically, we were the "tip of the spear" for funding in Haiti.

We worked every day of the week with long hours and poor living conditions, especially at night. There was a lot of pressure to do legal reviews, fund purchases on a time sensitive mission to save people's lives, and watch the weather. I have never been on a mission so focused on the amount of rain coming. This was all due to people in Internally Displaced Persons camps living in danger of flooding. There are Haitians living in riverbeds and there is a great need for debris removal in canals used to stop water and floods. A lot of the rubble in the canals was caused by earthquake debris from homes, businesses, and walls falling into the canals and drainage ditches. The possibility that water would back up and flood living areas and homes was great. With this, every day we had time tables for distributing food to the starving, trying to find Americans if still alive, or remains if not, debris removal from the streets with occasional stoppage for a body in the rubble, moving Haiti people out of harm's way, as well as worrying about the personnel in the very hot & humid weather.

I learned a lot working in the Joint Operations Center of the Joint Task Force. When I took over as the J8 Director, I was the only director that was Air Force, one of two of the J staff with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, and the only director in the mission that was Guard. The main bulk of personnel were Army, but there were members of all branches of service, USAID, Non Government Organizations, and different countries. Along with the Haiti Government we were all working together for one purpose: to save lives and mitigate human suffering.

The main message for me that comes out of this mission is not what I learned in the working environment, which was a lot, but what I learned from the resolve of the Haitian people and the expanse of the problem.

They are a country that has over 2 million people displaced from homes and estimates of over 230,000 people that died in the earthquake. The numbers are staggering and the memories from when I went out to the IDP camps, orphanages, and just drove around Port-au-Prince to see the mass of the problem will be a part of my mind forever, making me proud that I was at least, at one moment in time, part of helping the strong people and the torn country.

The people really don't want or need handouts; they just want work so they can make money to feed themselves and their families. Most of the Haitian people I dealt with are proud and willing to work, hard labor in exchange for money, but they need an economy, a government they can believe in, and jobs to support them.

One thing is for certain, this deployment reiterates how thankful I am that I live in the United States of America.