Haiti: Operation Uphold Democracy
By David Glasenapp
This article originally appeared in the Pearl River Community College's award winning literary magazine - Spring and Summer 1998 and is reprinted by permission of the author.
My journey began from the port of Panama City, Florida, aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Dependable. The ship had received its orders to set sail for the port of Haiti as part of the United States Operation Uphold Democracy Force. The crew members' hearts were racing like a qualifier for the Indianapolis 500. We were all preparing for the unknown. We had a job to do, and the Coast Guard motto "semper paratus (always ready)" had taken hold. Our nerves were beginning to show signs of elevated heart and respiratory signals.
We crossed the crystal blue waters of the Caribbean Sea, through the Windward Passage, and entered murky brown water resembling that of a sewage treatment plant in the Port of Haiti. The awful odor took our breath away. Our ship went to battle condition two as we entered port. The United States Coast Guard Cutter Dependable moored safely next to the dock, a pier of old rickety wooden planks. Our long awaited moment had arrived.
The port was filled with citizens, especially children, looking for any item the Americans would give. We had been given orders not to talk with anyone when we were off the ship. It was a time of political disarray for the government of Haiti. Our job was to make sure the elections and transition of power to the new political body occurred without incident.
The surrounding area of the dock included rundown shacks, many bystanders, and military port security boats. The security boats were equipped with M-60 caliber machine guns mounted to their decks. The weapon could rotate 360 degrees. The security boats were responsible for the security of the port and military ships moored to the pier. As we received our security instructions, rebel gunfire and small explosions filled the air. Skirmishes were a daily occurrence between different rebel Haitian gangs who were responsible for many killings in the streets of Haiti--streets filled with decomposing bodies, screaming people, and crying children. Hearing and seeing people being gunned down on the streets simply because they were not members of the right rebel gang remain in my memory long after my departure from Haiti.
The port was the most disgusting place a human being could be. We often placed tobacco in our mouths or sucked on peppermint to remove the smell of raw sewage and urine from our nostrils. As we patrolled the harbor, we often teased each other about our sweaty fatigues and nasty body odor. We all wanted to smell like roses, but tended to smell more like cow manure.
We participated in port security missions in twelve hour shifts and rotated shifts every five days. Our meals consisted of vacuum-packed rations. Our favorite was spaghetti and meat balls. Often we got the luxury of a cup of coffee, although the coffee always tasted burnt. Even the smell of burnt coffee was a treat to most crew members. We never got used to the smell of that nasty port.
The security units never had any skirmishes with the rebel gang members. Our duties were to protect the innocent civilians and guarantee a peaceful election, a process many Americans take for granted. We also monitored relief efforts by various world relief agencies who provided food to the people of Haiti. Handing out food to the people resembled watching a piranha feeding frenzy. As people began to fight and grab what they could, the children were the ones who really suffered. They were stomped, knocked down, or picked up and tossed like sacks of potatoes by the crowds trying to get the food.
As crew members and American citizens, we were heartbroken while watching this type of reaction to the relief effort. Often, the food never made it to the food distribution warehouses because rebel gangs stole and robbed the food supply without regard for human needs and feelings. With their consistent show of force and repercussions, the rebels took many innocent lives.
The Coast Guard Cutter Dependable was part of Operation Uphold Democracy for two months. On our voyage home, I began to wonder about these innocent people who live in a world where there is no security. I have concluded that we as Americans tend to ignore the ramifications of political fallout, however unjust or necessary. The American political policy is to become involved only when our monetary and political interests are at stake. As the world democratic power after the fall of Communism, it is now our responsibility to make sure everyone in this great world has the same opportunities given to us under the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
My experience in Haiti taught me many things of the human creature in all of us; unfortunately, the creature is about the survival of the fittest. The strong survive and the weak die. The strongest feed on the weak without compassion or caring for fellow human beings. The United States is portrayed as a country of great moral values and ethical standards, although we put them aside when becoming involved in another nation's turbulence and chaos.
The United States, over the last several years, has become a world police department. With the threat of nuclear war no longer present, our roles as Americans have changed. We are required as a society to support our government, and we've been called upon to make decisions regarding the security of this country and that of other countries in turmoil.
A 210' Underway - Courtesy Ken Laessar's CG History Site
Although my experience in Haiti has
taught me many things, I can't help feeling sorry for these innocent victims of
a culture gone wrong. As a member of the Coast Guard for fifteen years, I have
been personally involved in several rescues of Haitians fleeing their country
only to be taken back because of politics and procedures. The Haitians risk
their lives crossing the seas, and many die along the way before reaching
American's shores or being rescued. I admire and respect the Haitians for their
determination and persistence to reach a country where its citizens take freedom
for granted. The Haitians are only looking for the freedom and security they
don't have in their own country. The smell of burnt coffee now transports me
mentally from my backyard to the backyard of many Haitians.
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