Kansas Guard unit helps rebuild Haiti from scratch

Senior Airman Christopher Berroth, a structural apprentice with the 190th Air Refueling Wing, secures the lining of an Expeditionary Medical Support (EMEDS) support hospital in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Senior Airman Christopher Berroth, a structural apprentice with the 190th Air Refueling Wing, secures the lining of an Expeditionary Medical Support (EMEDS) support hospital in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. TSgt. Emily F. Alley/Kansas Air National Guard/MCT

WASHINGTON — Add some plumbers, carpenters and forklift operators from Kansas to the doctors, nurses and other volunteers from around the globe involved in the humanitarian relief effort in Haiti.

They're part of a civil engineering unit from the Kansas Air National Guard that arrived last month in response to the earthquake that left an estimated 230,000 people dead and devastation in its wake.

Local services are few or nonexistent. Food remains a problem, many buildings are either destroyed or unsafe, and thousands live in makeshift shelters often no sturdier than a sheet held up by a tree branch.

The tasks of the 46 Guard members aren't the stuff of operating room heroics or miraculous rescues from the rubble. In a place devoid of many of even the most basic amenities, however, the Kansas troops are making life a little easier for the people who've come to help, to say nothing of the disaster's victims.

They've built portable hospitals and landing zones, set up emergency utilities and erected tent cities.

"We plan out where the latrines go, where the showers go, where the kitchen and dining facilities go, and make sure they are up and running," Master Sgt. Carren Christianson, of the 190th Civil Engineering Squadron out of Topeka, Kan., said by phone from Haiti.

The unit also included a few members from the 184th Intelligence Wing out of Wichita, Kan., which includes members of many of the construction trades. Besides plumbers and carpenters, there are electricians and heavy equipment operators.

The unit also has a couple of civil engineers, as well as some members whose civilian careers are far afield from the task at hand, such as a videographer and a photographer.

"You have all these different people from different walks of life," said Capt. Joe Blubaugh, a spokesman for the Guard. "They've basically had to go into an area where there is no infrastructure and build infrastructure. That's exactly what they're doing."

The Haiti assignment turned out to be a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Medical missions are a specialty of the 190th. It was responsible for setting up the emergency hospital in Greensburg, Kan., nearly three years ago after a tornado leveled the town.

As bad as that was, said Lt. Col. Mark Green of Shawnee, Kan., who led the Greensburg operation and now commands the 190th in Haiti, "The magnitude of this devastation is certainly much greater."

When the earthquake hit on Jan. 12, the unit was on a training exercise at the American military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The unit was supposed to be deployed for two weeks, but instead it landed at the Port-au-Prince airport a week after the quake and set up camp. The bulk of the squad is expected home this weekend, but a small contingent will remain behind.

"The devastation is bad," said Master Sgt. Lee Buttel, 49, of Wichita, one of those who'll stay longer.

A veteran of the Greensburg mission who's also done tours in Iraq and elsewhere, he said, "People are living on the streets. It always gets you down that you can't do more than you can do. But we're doing what needs to be done right now."

Christianson, 43, a civilian employee at Forbes Air Force Base in Topeka when she's not in uniform, said the unit is doing rudimentary city planning on a small scale. Her team has mapped out sites, measured for tents, marked the boundaries and then brought in the carpenters and other skilled troops.

"We changed peoples' lives," Christianson said. "People said to us, 'Do you realize what you people have done? You just built a hospital!'"

It'll take years before Haiti returns to some kind of normalcy. The country is short of everything now, even crutches.

Green said he knows that the work his troops are doing isn't the Hollywood version of war-as-glory depicted in movies he's watched with twin 15-year-old sons.

"I'm taking care of the air conditioning and making sure the toilets flush," he said. "That probably doesn't sound too exciting."

Still, he thinks his troops will realize the importance of their mission.

"They can say, 'Wow! They were main players in a natural disaster,'" Green said. "I think they will be very proud."


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