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Extending compassion to Haiti from the USS Normandy

NORFOLK, Va. (BP)–Their situation, one that is lacking any sort of opportunity in a world full of wealth and prosperity, will stick with me. The kids, so full of joy even though they have nothing, will stick with me as well.

A drop of clean water, a balanced meal — luxuries for these people — will never be taken for granted again.

I didn’t expect to be sent to Haiti to help those in need — not like this, not on a U.S. Navy warship whose primarily mission is air defense. Yet God has the bigger plans, always, in my individual life and in humanity as a whole.

The 7.0-magnitude that shook Haiti on Jan. 12 crumbled just about everything in and around the capital of Port-au-Prince. International relief workers rushed to the scene and so did military contingencies from a number of countries. My ship, the USS Normandy, was sent with an aircraft carrier, a handful of Marine-carrying amphibious ships and a hospital ship.

I watched the news intently once we got orders to become part of Operation Unified Response in Haiti. Lifting the plight of the hurting to the Lord is something I try to do regardless of how connected I am to a particular tragedy or situation of struggle. With Haiti, I found myself woven more deeply into the process of intercession than ever before. I found myself trying to empathize with the hurt — so many people trapped, without homes, looking for loved ones, struggling to get basic needs met, grasping desperately for peace, for healing, for God to make a way for things to settle out. Lord, be with them, was my constant prayer.

Our ship arrived three days after the earthquake struck. Everything was chaos ashore — so much aid was rushing in but no one knew how to get it out and to the right places. There was no possibility of ground transport and the airport had become a virtual bumper-to-bumper traffic jam. I could sense the hunger of the victims, waiting for someone to come forward with help.

It felt like the relief effort took a big leap Monday morning, Jan. 18, in the way that relief workers and military personnel were collaborating to get aid from the central location in Port-au-Prince to where it was needed. On the USS Normandy, our two attached helicopters from Helicopter Anti-submarine Squadron Light (HSL) 46 Detachment 3, flew from our flight deck into Port-au-Prince and got food and water where it needed to be and transported injured victims to places of medical refuge. Helicopters from the carrier were doing the same. In my heart, in the hearts of many on my ship, and I’m sure so many others throughout the globe, a sound of rejoicing was let out as the first big wave of relief got to areas where it hadn’t in the last few days. Though much work lay ahead, at least steps were being taken to go from wreckage to rebuilding.

Food and water distribution and medical treatment became the focus of the next two weeks and continues still. Distribution points became more and more legitimized and so did the process to get people the resources they needed. The U.N. eventually came out with a coupon system to guarantee women and children were able to get food. God was moving.

As I worked on the ship far away from the relief efforts, I continued to be an intercessor, praying for the relief workers and military personnel engaged in helping the victims and praying for the victims as they tried to regain a sense of life, even as so much of it had been torn from them.

I and others from the Normandy got our first opportunity to directly aid those in need on Jan. 23, as we were directed to visit a small coastal town on the northwestern coast of the country’s south “claw,” about 70 miles from Port-au-Prince.

We arrived at Petit Trou de Nippes via a RHIB boat, a rigid hull inflatable boat much like a motor boat but not quite as fast, navigating through sporadic coral reefs to pull alongside the town’s pier. The people were hesitant at first, asking us, “Why are you here?” We responded: “To help.” We ended up giving the town a supply of food, medical supplies and about 20 gallons of the fuel to generate electricity for a couple days. Our ship’s medical personnel also treated a handful of patients and coordinated the medical evacuation of an 11-year-old girl diagnosed as having yellow fever.

By helping this town, we were able to build connections. The children especially delighted in holding our hands, grabbing the candy we offered and playing with us. Though it wasn’t a lot, I would say, “Bonjou,” Creole for good morning, to everyone I met, and would ask the kids, “Koman yo rele ou?” or, What is your name? Every little kid stared at us with wonder, but they definitely were not camera-shy; they kids lit up when you pointed a camera toward them and then showed them their image using the digital playback function.

The people of Petit Trou de Nippes and other towns we visited were very friendly, and I had a chance to sit down with some on the ledge of one of their homes. Through one resident who spoke English, I listened to their concerns. The young adults were ready to do something to make a productive life, but they had not been able to find a job to do such, all the more so now with the earthquake. To lighten up the mood, I took an orange from my backpack and shared it with those around me, primarily the kids who were so intrigued by a person like me in their town. I could sense the tastiness of the slices as they sucked the juices out and then ate the slices. Moments like that needed no translation.

At sundown, it was time for us to head back to the ship. The mayor and a contingent of people escorted us back down to the dock. The kids held our hands, as they had throughout the day. The mayor was greatly appreciative, exclaiming praises for our work and attention to his town. In my heart, I reflected his praises back up to God, who delivers all things.

Our ship visited a handful of other towns similar to Petit Trou de Nippes, most of them on the island just off the Haiti coast called La Gonave. We were able to give them the relief aid we had been given to distribute, primarily special dehydrated meals from a U.S. nonprofit organization. All of the people of those towns were grateful for the food, as they had not been able to receive supplies from Port-au-Prince since the earthquake.

I was able to go ashore once more, at the end of our series of humanitarian visits, to a village named Au Parc on the southeastern edge of La Gonave that consisted of makeshift houses of sticks with bed sheets or corrugated steel for a roof. The children, though appearing malnourished, displayed smiles and other signs of joy. When we unloaded a supply of water, the people brought empty containers that looked like they hadn’t been filled for weeks. The town’s water supply was a mile away and was said to be polluted. I knew the food would fill them, probably for a couple weeks, and hopefully then their lifestyle of fishing and trading could be resumed. I knew that, like the first town, many of the young adults wanted to move on and move out, to take their lives somewhere. But most of the villagers were not going anywhere, happy to fish and live simply, watch the sun go up and sun go down, letting life drift by with the calmness of the ocean that bordered their village.

Just after visiting Au Parc, our higher headquarters told us that we were being detached (sent home) from the military component of the relief effort, while the hospital ship and amphibious vessels were staying there to continue to give aid and assist the injured. Heading home, we all felt deeply connected to and concerned for the Haiti people, for their recovery as a nation and their individual lives. As I stared at the Haitian coastline for the final time, I said a prayer for the Haitians and for the aid workers, as I did every day while we were there: Lord be with them, continue to move and heal.

I will never forget my experience in Haiti, particularly the kids I was able to meet when I went ashore. I will never forget their smiles or their joy, even in the face of hardship. The devastation of Haiti will remain with me as well — yet more powerful still is the hope brought there by people who cared more about others than about themselves. It gives me hope for Haiti, in general, because I know that there are others willing to lift up those in need. I continue to pray for Haiti, for our benevolent God to work through people to restore the country from its brokenness.
Ensign Adam R. Cole is a member of First Baptist Church in Norfolk, Va., and founder of Join the Journey (www.jointhejourney.cc) media outreach. He currently is serving aboard the USS Normandy, one of the ships involved in Operation Unified Response in Haiti. Cole can be reached at [email protected].

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  • Adam R. Cole