PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Staff Sgt. James Gresham of the 82nd Airborne Division is a lanky, red-haired Texan accustomed to guarding against roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Haiti, he walks around without body armor or a helmet.
The 3,600 paratroopers from Fort Bragg who are in or on their way to aid the earthquake-relief effort confront an unusual and, in some ways, most welcome challenge: completely regearing their minds and jobs for a non-combat role.
"It's probably about 180 degrees," said Gresham, a 27-year-old who has three children and one on the way.
Most of the troops have spent a year at a time in Iraq or Afghanistan or both. They watch for gun- or bomb-wielding insurgents in every group of local citizens in those countries.
In Haiti, they get occasional cheers or "Thank yous." And 82nd Airborne troops riding in Humvees and trucks toward a spot to distribute food and water made a turn as a Haitian shouted in Creole: "We welcome the American occupation!" U.S. troops and leaders undoubtedly dispute the last word but appreciate the embracing sentiment.
Some Haitians along the street offered cheers when the troops arrived in downtown Haiti last week, while others shouted that they need a job. Haitians routinely approach soldiers, asking for help, while in Afghanistan and Iraq, suspicion on both sides inhibits conversation.
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For complete coverage of Haiti, Read the Miami Herald's coverage.