By Lisa Danielle Healy


Aboard the CGC Dallas:

It’s a smoldering 90-degree December afternoon in the Caribbean. The calm, crystal blue sea mesmerizes me with its tranquility. Soon, however, reality will rudely and abruptly set in. Another 35-foot Haitian sailing vessel has been sighted with at least 150 people on board.

What lies ahead for us and them will not be good. Can I really go through this again? More important, can they? Will any of us ever be the same?

As our ship pulls alongside them I am overcome with nausea. The smell, that same smell as before. The smell of urine, human feces and vomit. As I look down into the boat, I see them sitting in it. It is more than I can handle. I have to vomit over the side and then go on with my job.

This boat load is different from the last. This one has many women and children in it. My job is more important now because of the children. I am the only woman on board who has children of her own. I know I will need to help. It will be a long day.

We separate the women and the men. As they come on board, we give them each a toothbrush, toothpaste and a bar of soap. We have made showers outside for them. They are so happy to be getting a shower. They hold onto their toothbrush like it is their most prized possession.

One lady hands me her tiny son as she comes on board. She looks into my eyes and I know what she is asking without her saying a word. She is dirty, exhausted and hungry. She can tell that I will take care of him.

I obtain permission from the captain to take the baby inside the ship. I bathe him and give him a little love. In only a few minutes’ time, I have fallen in love with this beautiful little boy.

I think of how desperate his mother must be to have risked his life in the way that she has. I think of how I wish I could make his life better. One of the smaller women brings him an undershirt to wear. It fits him like a gown. I put sock on him that come up over his beautiful soft legs. At least he will not be chilly tonight after the sun sets.

Many of the children have no clothing at all. I take him back to his mother. She tells me, by pretending to point a gun, that her husband has been killed.

They bring me another child to bathe. He is about 2 years old. His little ears are so infected he can hardly hold his head up. He is crying out in pain. We have no oral antibiotics for him. It will be two days before he can see a doctor. Meanwhile he must suffer. It is almost unbearable to watch.

His father is grateful for the pain medication we gave him. His son has been through so much. His mother was killed by the Haitian army. All they have is each other and their dream of a better life.

The refugees sit on the hot decks of our ship. Each has been given a blanket to sit on. We have more than 300. They are in good spirits. They believe we rescued them to take them to America. They sing what sounds like folk songs. Soon, their singing will end.

The president has taken many weeks to decide what to do. We received word today that we are to take them back to Haiti. Why? How can we? We know these people. We have fed their children and taken care of them. We can’t abandon them. They will surely die at the hands of their army.

As we near Haiti, they know we are not their rescuers. We are prepared for a riot. The security force is armed. We have all been briefed on what could happen. We must make this go as quickly as possible in case of trouble.

We pull into Port-au-Prince. There are destitute people swimming in the water begging for us to throw them money. There are a few Red Cross workers here. There are media organizations.

We line the Haitians up single file to leave the boat. There is no rioting. There is no trouble.

What there is today is many desperate people who only wanted a better life for themselves and their children. As they leave our boat, they hold their heads high. They are prepared to succumb to the fate that awaits them. They don’t cry or beg. They know they did their best. They tried to reach out and grab that freedom that we all take for granted so very often.

They will not let the army see their pain.

I see it, and I will never forget it. I will never forget them. They have changed my life forever. As they leave, I am sobbing for them, wishing I could save them. A reporter looks up at me and chuckles. He doesn’t know what I know.


These Haitians sold all their possessions and risked their life to have what I have. They deserved to live.


This story originally appeared on the front page of the Virginian Pilot and is reprinted by permission of the author.

Return to the Coast Guard Stories Page