PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- The clang, clang, clang of metal against metal echoes up walls of the narrow one-lane dirt road as stern-faced men “stack” against the wall waiting for an answer to their hammering knock on the steel gate.
Shuffling and muffled voices come from behind the gate as the grating screech of a latch being drawn breaks the waiting silence.
A lady steps out, her surprise, uncertainty and fear at seeing the armed warriors outside her residence instantly apparent as she began to back away, ringing her hands and shying as if expecting to be hit.
The look of uncertainty soon changed to one of surprise when one of the men stepped away from the group, reached out his hand and introduced himself in Creole.
Taking her hand in one hand and gently resting his other on her shoulder, Cpl. Kervens Michel quickly explained that they’re U.S. Marines with the Multinational Interim Force and that they are here looking for information about a group of men who had fired on a vehicle patrol a few nights earlier.
Patting his hand, she quickly began explaining what she knew and explaining that she wasn’t sure what was going on in the community. All she really knew was that there had been a lot of gunfire about a quarter mile further in the community.
Reassuring her that the Marines were there to help build stability and security in the area, he then wished her a great afternoon, shook her hand again and then explained what she had said to the unit’s commander.
Soon the Marines were stepping off to the next house.
Michel is one of approximately 20 Haitian-American Marines, sailors, soldiers and airmen here supporting Combined Joint Task Force – Haiti’s mission to contribute to stability and security in Haiti.
According to Marine Col. Mario LaPaix, special advisor to CJTF-Haiti’s commander and a Haitian-American himself, the role of these personnel is essential because of the language barrier.
“They provide the ability to communicate throughout the spectrum of jobs, even patrolling,” LaPaix explained.
“The native Haitian Marines who speak Creole have been absolutely critical to the success of this mission from day one,” agreed Marine Col. David H. Berger, commanding officer of 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, one of the first units on the ground after the resignation of the former president. “In every tactical mission, every meeting with key leaders, they have played a key role in ensuring our goals were clearly stated.
“When we first flew in after Aristide’s departure, our Haitian Marines were in the first patrols in the city, and one traveled with me to initial meetings with key leaders. In all cases, they had an immediate impact on our ability to accomplish our mission.”
According to Weapons Company commander, Marine Capt. William A. Sablan, each company in 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine regiment was lucky enough to already have a Haitian-American service member filling a role in their commands before they deployed.
This allowed them to interact with the local community immediately upon their arrival.
Their heritage is a key factor in their ability to help blend the Marines’ operations into the local communities.
“These Marines know the culture, and they know the area we’re operating in,” Berger explained. “These Marines have made it possible for us to communicate directly with the Haitian people on the street, and they have helped diffuse potentially violent situations time and again. “
In these situations, the community sees one of their own and greets these service members with trust and confidence, knowing that they will be treated fairly.
“On multiple occasions, we have settled potentially violent situations merely because our Haitian Marines were up front, doing the talking, calming down the crowd,” Berger explained.
“The mission here would be much more difficult without the assistance of Marines like Cpl. Michel,” Sablan stated. “The language barrier in Haiti is significant as very few of its residents speak English. As soon as he starts speaking in his native tongue, the locals become very receptive and almost eager to help out one of their own.”
“Many of the people are confused about what is going on in Haiti,” Michel explains. “When I go out, I talk to the people and they understand. If I tell them something, they listen to what I say.”
“Since I speak Creole and am Haitian they trust me,” he continued.
The fact that these service members have achieved so much is also a source of pride for their Haitian brethren here who have been facing this most recent crisis.
“The Haitian people have a great deal of respect and admiration for Marines,” Berger said, “and gravitate toward our Haitian Marines on patrol because they trust us and feel at ease talking to a fellow Haitian wearing a Marine Corps uniform.”
“Everyone I talk with finds pride in me and wants to work with me,” Michel explained.
“Without their help, we would not have been able to get out into the city as fast as we did, and we would not have understood the background behind the issues important to the Haitian people.”
These personnel are more than just linguists; they fill a variety of position within the unit and assist in all aspects of the operation.
“The Haitian Marines in our battalion are key members of this team in a variety of military specialties,” Berger said, “to include infantrymen, administrative clerks and Light Armored Vehicle crewmen.”
The fact that most of these service members volunteered to come down or would have volunteered if they had not already been assigned says a lot about their character.
“To a man, each of them has shown the most selfless and professional approach to duty,” Berger explained about the Haitian-Americans under his command. “Each one has performed in an exceptional manner, without any personal reservation.
“I think they understand that they are in a unique position to help make their native country safer,” he continued, “and improve the lives of their countrymen.”
“They have a strong kinship to Haiti,” agreed LaPaix. “They would like to make it better.
“There is no doubt in my mind,” he continued, “that they want this country to have what all countries want; freedom.
“Haiti is not a welfare state. They just haven’t had the leadership or opportunity to do better.”
According to LaPaix, their being here says a lot about their personal courage. “For Haitian-Americans it is a little more profound,” the Brooklyn, N.Y. native explained. “This is their heritage, their former home. They remember a lot of things such as eating sugar candy as well as beans and rice. Now they can’t even touch the food.
“It is like being home yet at the same time not.”
Many Haitian-Americans serving came back to Haiti often to visit family members before the current crisis. These service members find themselves bringing a different perspective to Operation Secure Tomorrow.
“I bring the new generation to this,” states Marine Sgt. Marie M. Augustin, who had recently returned to the states from a visit here only months before the multinational forces deployed here.
Having this more recent tie allows her understand the current mood of the community, Augustin explained. “I am more in touch with the fads.”
Even though she has spent time in Haiti, Augustin has found challenges due to having been born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“I do have a different perspective because I was born in the U.S.,” she explained. “I have the New Yorker and American attitude. I am use to things being more structured.
“Here I find myself having to deal with things being more relaxed. I am just not used to that.”
For the Haitian-Americans serving in the operation here there is a sense of accomplishment.
“I am doing my part to help,’ Augustin said. “Whether it is going out and talking to people or translating the radio reports, I am doing my part to help Haiti.
“It is like I am making a direct impact. I love it.”
Much of the credit for the mission’s success is given to the Haitian-American service members.
“I don’t think anyone expected such a rapid decrease in the level of violence when we initially deployed,” Berger said, “and I credit a lot of our success to the service of these Marines, sailors, soldiers and airmen.
“They want to make possible a better life for the Haitian people, and we would not have been able to accomplish as much as we have, in as little time without the help of these men and women.”
As the current operation comes to a close, Cpl. Michel’s assistance has yielded two shotguns, ammunition and a great deal of information about the incident they were investigating, not to mention that the community has a better idea of what the Marines are doing -- providing security and stability for the people of Haiti.