PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – The biggest U.S. military surge since Iraq and Afghanistan is scaling back a month after the troops arrived in haste to aid victims of Haiti’s catastrophic quake.
Great gray ships have been leaving behind Haiti’s battered shores as thousands of American troops pack up their tents. The mission, however, is far from over.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the U.S. will be in Haiti for the long haul, although troop strength is down to 13,000 from a Feb. 1 peak of 20,000.
Within a broad international relief effort, U.S. forces have provided some of the most visible support to a nation whose government and infrastructure were nearly wiped out in less than a minute on Jan. 12.
They have shored up the capital’s quake-damaged port to operate at several times its pre-quake tonnage, while acting as a security and logistics mainstay for U.N. food distributions. Military choppers have delivered life-sustaining relief to isolated villages.
The flow of injured quake victims to the USNS Comfort hospital ship has eased, but the need for medical facilities remains overwhelming in Port-au-Prince.
“We’re pretty saturated. This is the chokepoint,” said Air Force Maj. John Mansuy of St. Clairsville, Ohio, the operating room nurse in a tented, full-service unit in the teeming Cite Soleil slum. His medical team takes in people strapped to stretchers – with fractures, open wounds and other life-threatening maladies – before rushing them offshore to the Comfort.
The Haiti aid operation, costing the Pentagon $234 million and counting, has added a new strain to an already overtaxed military. About seven in 10 members of the Cite Soleil’s modern-day MASH unit are veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – and many are scheduled to return there.
The U.S. military already is turning certain tasks back over to the Haitians, such as daytime air traffic control at Port-au-Prince’s damaged international airport, where commercial flights are expected to resume by Friday.