PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- The sharp tang of diesel fumes mixes with the scent of burning refuse in the morning breeze as Humvees roar through the slowly waking community.
As the convoy of tactical vehicles winds their way toward the outlying district of Petionville, its cargo of Marines keep watchful eyes on doors, windows and rooftops as well as the small crowds that are beginning to gather for a planned demonstration.
“Dismount!” The vehicle commander barks over the sound of screeching breaks as the vehicles come upon minor traffic congestion at an intersection. Boots thud against the pavement as Marines automatically take up security positions flanking the Humvees. Tiny rivers of sweat run from under the warriors’ helmets then trickling down their faces as the morning continues to heat up.
As the vehicles begin to move, these warriors clad in full battle attire (flak jackets, load bearing vests, and helmet) continue to flank their vehicles until the road is once again clear. Gunners manning medium and heavy machineguns mounted on the Humvees keep alert eyes on the surrounding buildings, ready to provide suppressive fire for the Marines on foot.
“Mount up!” echoed down the line of vehicles as Marines rapidly retake their positions aboard their vehicles. Once again the convoy is rolling fast, wheels roaring. Marines are ever watchful as they continue on to the link up point with the main body of demonstrators.
Soon the Marines find themselves rolling into a center plaza slowly filling with chanting, sign waving Haitian nationals that is now finally getting the chance to exercise their democratic right to demonstrate without fear of persecution.
The Marines were greeted with many happy, excited and enthusiastic waves as they circled the perimeter of the center plaza checking for possible threats before taken up position to wait for the demonstration march to begin.
“Dismount! Setup a security perimeter,” orders the convoy commander as the vehicles stage near the district police station at the southeast corner of the plaza. “Make sure you’re drinking plenty of water.”
Quickly the Marines take up their positions in a 360-degree perimeter.
“I have one male with a rifle,” one of the Marines radios in. “He is on the fenced porch of the house due north of our position.” “Hold your, position and report back any movements,” the commander orders.
Keeping alert, the Marines stand by as members of the Haitian National Police force from the district headquarters and members of the French military arrive, linking up with the Marine commander.
The leaders of each force move down into the crowd to link up with the leader of the group that will be participating in the demonstration march to the national palace in the heart of the city. After a brief coordination meeting the commanders’ return giving the order to “mount-up!”
“I am little nervous, not knowing what is going to happen,” admits Lance Cpl. Bruce D. Vincent, a mortarman with Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, who is a Humvee driver for operations in Haiti. “Each time we roll, I expect the worst and hope for the best.”
Soon the Marines are easing their way through the massive crowds of Haitians, followed closely by the French troops and Haitian National Police. As they clear the crowd they pick up speed as they lead an ever-growing mass of demonstrators through the twisting winding roads of the city.
As the Marines continue to move forward at the head of thousands of Haitian nationals, Vincent says much of his nervousness is gone.
“I am still alert and aware of what is going on around me, but I can tell the people around us are here for us and want us to be here,” he explains.
From ahead the sound of music booming in the distance begins to rise about the hum of the vehicle engines and chanting. Marines soon find themselves in a sea of chanting bodies as the demonstrators rush past to get to the next rallying point and join in the enthusiastic call to demonstrate.
Having to act fast, the Marines and French forces began directing people from between vehicles to prevent injuries and loss of life on what has so far been a peaceful gathering.
According to Cpl. Jeremy S. Lewis, a squad leader with Weapons Company, the Haitian people would help as they saw the Marines trying to direct the people from between the vehicles. “As we give signals for them to move away from the vehicles, a lot of the time the Haitian people would help. They would pull others back or block them from going between vehicles. They really did more than we did,” he explained. “A lot of these people understand we are here to help.”
As the forces crested the top of a hill they found themselves centered between to masses of demonstrators merging to continue on to the palace. Music boomed over the crowd drowning out all other sound, as people danced about then thrusting forward again once the Marines were once again at the head of the demonstration.
Approximately three hours after beginning this march of thousands, the Marines find themselves rounding a corner, palace in site. Their work done, they head around to the back of the palace complex to enjoy some needed rest, food and water. According to Vincent, this mission is very different for him and many others. “It is a huge difference overall. To go through all the training to be mortarmen and then jump back into (basic infantry) skills is tough,” he explains. “As mortarmen we never really see our enemy. Out here, we are making eye contact with them.”
Weapons Company was one of the Multi-national Interim Force elements assisting the Haitian National Police in providing a secure and safe environment for a democratic demonstration here March 7.
“Those holding the demonstration march had security concerns,” states Capt. Bill A. Sablan, Weapons Company commander. “They have been assaulted on long this route in the past.” This concern was addressed in a multi-national plan to assist the Haitian National Police in dealing with those elements in the city that would try to impede the organizations right to demonstrate.
“We had security posted along the route, integrating American and French forces as well as the Haitian National Police,” Sablan explains the logistics of the plan. “We had three static positions; one on the corner of Delmas and Martin Luther King, one at Martin Luther King and John Brown and one at John Brown and Rue Jardias.”
These locations were chosen because of reports that confirmed they were the main sites that the organization was assaulted in the past, according to Sablan. “We also have a roving patrol along the western side of Martin Luther King and a number of vehicles leading the procession,” he continued.
During the procession helicopters were airborne to watch for pockets of resistance or confrontation. This enabled the roving patrol to be alerted and guided to the scene.
According to Sablan the biggest challenge of the demonstration was maintaining control of the forces and demonstrators. “There is upwards of 6 to 7,000 demonstrators which has us spread out over miles of twisting and turning streets,” he explains. “Our training and rehearsals has been the key to the success of the demonstration.
Unwinding from being on alert since early morning, the Marines begin to find small pockets of shade to relax and catch a few moments of sleep as they form the quick reaction force in the case of an emergency. “Crack, crack, crack … crack, crack!” the crack of small arms fire echoes back from the front of the Palace complex where the demonstration was being held.
“For those of you who didn’t know, that is gun fire,” barks the Company First Sergeant. Master Sgt. Stout. “Get your gear on! Mount-up!”
Marines scramble to get their personal protective gear back on and reload everything back on the vehicles to include themselves. In minutes, both Marines and vehicles are ready to roll.
Time slows and minutes drag by as the Marines sit fidgeting with their gear and weapons, vehicles idling, waiting for higher headquarters to employ them. To the changin of the Marines, the order came to stand down and word was past that the gunmen drove off. Captain Sablan quickly staged the vehicles and orders the Marines to find some near by shade but to stay ready and alert.
“When I heard the shoots my adrenaline started racing,” Vincent says, “I just want to get out there. It is my job, it is the just the way I view things. If something is happening I want to be there to help my Marines and the Haitian people.”
“Crack, crack, crack, crack … crack, crack!” more small arms fire comes from the front of the palace as the Marines began settling in.
“Mount up” is barked and Marines once more assume their positions on the vehicles. Soon after, the call comes from higher to move forward to the front of the palace.
The vehicles rapidly deploy in a rough crescent along the front of the Palace within its compound. A line of Marines from another of 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines’ companies are already in place, kneeling along the palaces perimeter fence.
Capt. Sablan and Master Sgt. Stout quickly liaison with the Marine Air Ground Task Force Commander to receive their mission orders for the situation. Upon returning the grab the vehicle commanders and quickly explain that there is a reported sniper position approximately 500 meters from the palace in an old theater. It will be their job to cordon off the building and surrounding streets while Lima Company enters and secures the building.
With everyone clear on what their tasks will be, the companies command element returns to their respective vehicles and brief their troops.
As the troops are made aware of the situation, two Humvees looking like porcupines due to due to being packed with Marines and weapons, joined the convoy. Ready to roll, the gates to the compound swing open and the line of vehicles race out in the direction of the theater.
The vehicles hit the scene with tires roaring on the pavement and brakes squealing as they lurch to a halt in key blocking positions, Marines flowing over the tailgates like a tidal wave breaking on over rocks. Quickly Marines stack on buildings, alert for threats from the surrounding buildings, then break to work their way down the alleyways and into buildings.
Orders are heard echoing through the buildings as room by room they are cleared. Doors burst and fly open as Marines hammer through them into each room.
As no gunmen are found the command is given to consolidate, and the Marines quickly regroup for further orders. Soon the Marines find themselves once again out on the streets in the blistering sun of Haiti. Sweat soaking through their cammies as the beginning patrolling along the streets asking the local community for information.
“I was disappointed that we didn’t get the gunmen,” Lewis explains after returning to the palace. “They were aiming to kill people that were innocent. For that reason I was disappointed that we didn’t get them.”