Total-force crews support Operation Unified Response in Haiti

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Steve Staedler
  • 440th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
One look into Marven Jeannis' eyes showed just how tired he was.

Holding his father's hand, the little boy wearing an orange shirt and a designer cap a few too sizes too big walked up the ramp of an Air Force C-17 Globemaster III. His eyes squinted momentarily as they adjusted to the brightly lit fuselage. After finding his seat, Marven and the other seven children on board were given teddy bears to help provide comfort for the two hour flight from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to Orlando.

An Air Force public affairs representative helped secure his and his father's seatbelts. The Airman flashed the boy a thumbs-up, and he responded with a smile.

"We're glad you're here," said Jean Jeannis, the boy's father.

Although the 1.5-year-old boy probably didn't realize the significance this flight would have on his life, his father certainly understood.

"We are so happy to see the Air Force and what you are giving to us," he said. "My son and I are very grateful to you."

The boy and his father and most of the other 14 passengers were fast asleep as the aircraft taxied for takeoff. At 2:40 a.m. Jan. 22, the C-17 lifted off the ground, banked left and headed toward Florida to embark on the next, and hopefully, more promising chapter in their lives. Less than five minutes later, the remaining few passengers who stayed awake for takeoff were all asleep.

Airman answering the call
This late-night flight is just one of hundreds flying in and out of Haiti by Air Force active-duty, Reserve and Guard Airmen since the Jan. 12 earthquake. Pope Air Force Base is one of the major staging areas for transporting troops and supplies into the country. In the first 11 days since the earthquake, Pope AFB Airmen airlifted nearly 2,900 Soldiers and more than 2,700 tons of cargo and equipment to Haiti in support of Operation Unified Response.

The C-17 and the smaller C-130 Hercules provide the majority of the airlift muscle, with flight crews from bases throughout the United States operating out of this North Carolina base. A 317th Airlift Squadron Reserve crew from Charleston AFB, S.C., flew the 16 Haitians to Florida in a Travis AFB, Calif.-based C-17.

Departing at 8:20 p.m. Jan. 21, the C-17 carried more than 80,000 pounds of cargo; three Army medium tactical vehicles, a generator and water purification equipment, a few civilian contractors and a reporter for a national news Web site.

Since Toussaint L'Ouverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince is small with limited parking ramps, arriving aircraft often have to circle above waiting for space on the ground to open up before landing. The inbound C-17 circled for a while before touching down in Haiti just after midnight.

Operating with very little ramp lighting, Staff Sgts. Gus Morse and Stephen Pinkerton, Reserve loadmasters from the 317th AS, worked with their Army passengers to unload the vehicles and equipment in less than 15 minutes. The two then set up seats and prepped the aircraft for its Haitian passengers.

Shortly after 2 a.m., 16 Haitians (eight adults and eight children), many of whom are U.S. citizens, boarded the aircraft. Prior to departure, Sergeant Morse handed out foam ear plugs to his passengers. He assisted one woman, who came onboard in a wheelchair, with her ear plugs and ensured they were properly inserted and that she was comfortable.

"I volunteered for these missions as I just wanted to help out in any way I can," Sergeant Morse said. "For us, some have a little more meaning than others. This is probably going to be one of them."

"I think all of us on this crew volunteered to do this because we wanted to do something meaningful," Sergeant Pinkerton added.

One boy, who looked to be about 6, lay down across his seat with his head in his father's lap. Not wanting to wake his son, he took the extra set of ear plugs and put just one into his son's exposed ear. Shortly after takeoff, the little yellow foam plug popped out of the boy's ear and landed on the floor. It didn't seem too matter much as he slept the entire two-hour flight, much of it in the comfort of his father's lap.

The flight touched down at Orlando's Sanford Airport about 5 a.m. and was met by immigration and border control agents. The 16 Haitians were escorted off the aircraft and greeted by a gray, rainy Florida sky.

After processing in Orlando, Mr. Jeannis said he and his son planned to move to the Miami area, reunite with his wife and get a job driving a taxi. The only injury Mr. Jeannis had from the earthquake was a two-inch cut above his right eye from a piece of debris that fell from his house. His son wasn't injured because he was playing outside at the time.

"We're all friends here," Mr. Jeannis said of the other passengers on the flight. "I'm just looking forward to going to Miami and starting over."