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January 28, 2010

Back from the USNS Comfort and earthquake-ravaged Haiti

usns comfort in haiti

After a helicopter flight off of the USNS Comfort, a rumble through the streets of Port-au-Prince, a military evacuation flight to Orlando and a commercial flight to BWI, Kim Hairston and I are back in Baltimore today. We both felt some guilt in leaving the ship and the country behind when so many others don’t have the chance. We hope to be back soon.

The first two weeks of the Comfort’s mission to Haiti showed us the potential of Navy humanitarian medicine. The humanitarian mission in 2007 felt like a vacation in comparison; This trip had the urgency and the seriousness of purpose of a military campaign. And unlike the ship’s earlier visits to Haiti, with limited crew and more public affairs specialists than surgeons, this time the Comfort made full use of its tools.

We also saw how much more is left to be done. For all the sick and injured patients in the ship’s treatment beds, you see many more with a casual stroll through the streets of the city. Capt. Jim Ware said Wednesday that a stay as long as six months is not out of the question.

The American military presence in Haiti continues to astound, and not just the array of grey-hulled Navy ships bobbing around the Comfort in Port-au-Prince. We visited a Catholic Relief Services food distribution site at the suburban Petionville Club (shown here), where the 82nd Airborne Division has moved in 400 troops and taken over the clubhouse as a headquarters. At the Port-au-Prince airport we were told no one can get in unless they have a verified charter flight or an American passport. U.S. Air Force cargo planes landed throughout the day.

One of those planes took us home. After verifying our American residency and signing a form promising to pay the government back later, we were given wristbands designating us as evacuees. After a few hours waiting in a tent set up on the tarmac, we boarded an Air Force C-17 for a flight to Orlando. The scenario continued throughout the day. The tent filled up with people wearing wristbands until they were shuffled off to an awaiting Air Force plane. You don’t know your destination until you’re onboard. The woman sitting next to me cringed when they told us we were going to Orlando. She lived in Miami.

I’ll try to answer all the emails I’ve received the last two weeks, now that I have an internet connection that doesn’t rely on a shaky satellite signal. And I’ll try to answer other questions about the Comfort’s trip too.

Photo by Kim Hairston

Posted by Robert Little at 5:14 PM |
About the reporters
Reporter Robert Little, a native Baltimorean, has worked at The Baltimore Sun for 11 years. A former national correspondent, he has reported on military medical issues, and was the recipient of a George Polk Award for a series of articles about an experimental drug used on U.S. service members in Iraq. He also reported from Louisiana in 2005 on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Photographer Kim Hairston, a native of Cincinnati, Ohio, has worked at The Baltimore Sun for 21 years. She studied photojournalism at Ohio University as a master degree candidate. While on assignment for The Sun, she has covered a number of assignments including Catholic Relief Service outreach in Ecuador; AIDS and squalor in Soweto, South Africa and hurricane relief in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

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