Defense Media Network

Military Help in Haiti Earthquake

Initial Entry Force

The 7.0-level earthquake in Haiti occurred on the early evening of Jan. 12, 2010, creating havoc in the highest concentrations of the island’s population, being centered near the capital city, Port-au-Prince. The quake totally devastated the city and surrounding areas, while the largely unreinforced, cinder block construction of homes and urban structures resulted in widespread collapsed buildings, many deaths – eventually estimated at more than 230,000 – indeterminable numbers of trapped and injured people, and almost complete communications shutdown.

Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) provided what was essentially an initial entry force to re-open Toussaint L’Ouverture International Airport and operate it as the only functioning entry point for humanitarian assistance and exit point for evacuation of foreign nationals for the first couple of weeks after the quake. That the AFSOC element became the initial entry for Special Operations Command – South was normal and expected, as self-deployable air units can move quickly. This force also became initial entry for follow-on airlift operations and other Air Force elements, an unusual role in the Air Force for AFSOC. The mission expanded with growing understanding of the monumental need and with the participation of a large number of nations contributing what they could, all coming to and through the single entry point of the airport by Haiti’s capital city. The chaotic nature of the mission due to the extreme damage, and the immediate need to move as quickly as possible, meant rapid and unique adaptations to a catastrophic and unique event.

Col. Buck Elton, commander of the 1st Special Operations Group at Hurlburt Field, Fla., arrived on the tarmac of the airport in command of the AFSOC element 26 hours after the earthquake. He knew about the quake two hours after it happened from reports on CNN, and he knew he was going to lead the AFSOC element to provide humanitarian assistance a couple of hours after that. Through that night, the 623rd Air Operations Center (AOC) of AFSOC’s 23rd Air Force coordinated the planning of AFSOC units and load plans across the four AFSOC wings, two active-duty wings, one AF Reserve wing, and one National Guard wing, to deploy as quickly as possible the 16 aircraft immediately available and a Joint Special Operations Air Detachment, or JSOAD. This deployable headquarters was constructed to be rapidly deployable and set up to provide command and control, communications, air traffic control, emergency medical, aerial port operations, security, and cargo-handling capabilities.

A U.S. Air Force pararescueman from the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron, Air Force Special Operations Command, Hurlburt Field, Fla., and members of various rescue teams climb a ladder to get to a 25-year-old woman who had been trapped in a collapsed building for seven days Jan. 19, 2010, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. James L. Harper Jr.

Elton’s mission statement for Operation Unified Response was normal and necessarily open-ended for a humanitarian assistance mission – reduce human suffering, conduct airfield operations, and provide security to facilitate incoming aid and evacuation of Americans. Brig. Gen. Hector Pagan, commander of SOCSOUTH, added in a phone call to Elton, that the situation at the airport was poorly understood due to the poor communications. Pagan gave an order demanding initiative, flexibility, and creative thinking: “Get ahead of requirements, fill the voids when you see a vacuum, and always be value added.”

“Basically, Gen. Pagan told us to do good,” Elton explained.

To save time, AFSOC deployed on a verbal order that Elton received on the morning of Jan. 13, three days before the coordinated written orders arrived. The nucleus of his deployable people came from a Hurlburt base-level exercise conducted to prepare for the wing’s upcoming operational readiness inspection (ORI). All four AFSOC wings already were recalling people and setting up mobility processing, as the 623rd AOC under Col. “Opie” Wiegand worked with Elton to prioritize aircraft loads and which people needed to arrive in what order. By this time, the first news reports and statements from the president and others promising help for Haiti were on display, and the AFSOC folks understood they would be among the first to get there. Therefore, they expected to aid the Haitian officials at the airport to get ready to receive the relief flights that were to come and to support the AFSOC and Air Force set-up of military aid that would be a part of that. They knew they would find out much more when they got there and mostly concentrated on having the wide range of capabilities they could foresee would be required: medical triage, aerial port ops, air traffic control (ATC), security, and command and control (C2).

At the same time, SOCSOUTH Headquarters at Homestead AFB just south of Miami, Fla., used its small air component to get started as well. AFSOC had recently provided to SOCSOUTH an Air Component commander with a small staff, along with the deployment of a single DHC-8 aircraft from the 27th Special Operations Wing at Cannon AFB, N.M.  Lt. Col. Tim Sartz put the aircrew of the Dash 8 to work on planning to take the SOCSOUTH Situational Awareness Team, SSAT, to Port-au-Prince. The nine-person team from the SOC, led by Lt. Cmdr. Vic Hyder, was to connect with the U.S. Embassy (a building of much better construction and durability than anything else in Port-au-Prince) and the JTF-Haiti Commander Lt. Gen. Ken Keen, who was already there. Keen, the deputy commander of U.S. SOUTHCOM, was on a visit to Haiti at the time of the earthquake and remained to command the relief effort. Hyder’s team had communications gear and people to be the nucleus of the SOCSOUTH Staff-Forward. The crew and passengers of the Dash 8 loaded the aircraft at Homestead in the mid-afternoon of Jan. 13 and took off.

The pilot, Capt. Jeff Long, knew the airport tower was not operating and did not know the condition of the runway. He arrived over Toussaint L’Ouverture International after 6:00 p.m. and discovered two aircraft that were on the ground were on the airport radio frequency. They told him the runway was clear and useable. Long made an observation pass and landed. People were on the airport, but no one was running things. Long taxied into the parking ramp and shut down to unload. Embassy people with vehicles met them to pick up Hyder and his team and left. Long, upon preparing to leave, received radio calls asking about the airfield conditions from the first MC-130 coming from Hurlburt, with Elton on board.

Combat controllers from 23rd Special Tactics Squadron, Hurlburt Field, Fla., talk to aircraft circling the Port Au Prince International Airport. In the initial days of Operation Unified Response air operations were similar to the Berlin Airlift, with aircraft landing every five minutes. Aircraft from all over the world flew in and out to drop off humanitarian aid and transport people out of Haiti in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Desiree N. Palacios.

This first AFSOC MC-130 brought 37 people, including the nucleus of Elton’s command and control staff, six logisticians to begin aerial port operations, airfield security, and medical personnel. Once on the ground at the airfield, the people set about to do their separate functions and see who and what they could find at the airfield to connect with and form teams to aid in their work.

The initial Special Tactics element included 17 people who could provide air traffic control, six pararescue (PJ) specialists – including collapsed structure rescue – and combat weathermen. Twenty-eight minutes after landing, the combat controllers (CCT) announced by radio that Toussaint L’Ouverture International Airport was under their control and open. Their control tower and approach control facility for the airport would, for the next two weeks, consist of a couple of combat controllers with folding chairs, a card table, and tactical hand-held radios.

The controllers had a map of the airfield and understood its layout. The single taxiway to the runway meant that only one aircraft could come and go at a time. The parking area abeam the middle of the airfield could hold eight large aircraft at airport jetways, and there was some additional parking area partially occupied by small aircraft randomly parked and clearly soon to be in the way of things. It was also dark and there was little lighting. Standing on their chairs and holding night-vision goggles was their only solution to seeing flying aircraft traffic or getting visibility across the entire parking area.

At the same time, the airfield security team, nicknamed DAGRE, set about surveying the airfield and determined how to secure the area around the AFSOC aircraft. As they realized there was no one else around taking on such responsibility, they soon understood that they might be it for securing everything that might come in to the airfield. They began planning how to use the fences and barriers around the airfield to their advantage.

The small surgical team looked for a place to set up to receive people who might need medical attention. They knew there were people at the U.S. Embassy already who would need medical help, and the embassy would be the focal point for many American citizens to get medical help and to seek evacuation to the states.

Maj. Raquel Wasilausky led the six-person logistics team who expected to manage the unloading of AFSOC aircraft as they brought in humanitarian relief supplies, and afterward load American citizens who needed to be evacuated. She had five people with her on that first aircraft to set up and get things started. Her two fuels specialists went to find the airport fuel depot to see what was available for servicing aircraft and vehicles. She learned soon after landing that another aircraft with crew chiefs, maintainers, and additional cargo people had diverted, and its arrival would be delayed by as much as 20 hours. The logisticians searched for people who ran the aircraft parking ramp, noting any ground equipment that might be available for temporary use until more of their own equipment arrived. They found no one. They located the cargo handling company offices, but found them closed either because of the earthquake or the late time of day, about 8:30 p.m. and after dark. Thus began the busiest 24 hours those six people would ever experience. Aircraft soon began arriving, loaded with what different people from different countries and different organizations thought would be needed to help the Haitians.

The 623rd Air Operations Center at Hurlburt Field, Fla., provided command and control to AFSOC aircraft involved in humanitarian relief in Haiti. Photo courtesy of AFSOC.

Elton recognized that, at least for now, there appeared to be no one else running any functions of a major airport except for his element, which had just arrived. He told his folks to take charge of their various functions, work with what they had, and “do good.” He said they should do what they think best, call for help when they needed it, keep him informed, but don’t slow things down to ask permission.

Elton understood also that his mission had just gotten much, much bigger. He expected there would be things missing at the airport and his people would have to fill in the voids. But now, 26 hours after the earthquake and after dark of Jan. 13, everything was voids. There was no host nation to work with, not yet at the airport, anyhow. Mentally, he quickly accepted a massive amount of mission creep. He had the whole thing – all of air traffic control, all airfield management, all aircraft parking, all runway operations, all loading and unloading, all cargo delivery, all safety concerns, all airfield security, the only medical personnel around, all passengers who would come to the airport for evacuation, and all communications. And this responsibility was not limited to the AFSOC aircraft of his own small task force, or even all U.S. Air Force aircraft, but for whatever might come to this airfield.

In fact, very many aircraft were already on their way from virtually every direction. No one had the whole picture of what was coming, least of all the people on the airfield at Port-au-Prince. The whole world wanted to help – and all at once, it was coming to the only entry or exit point in Haiti that was in operation. Additionally, the various embassies in the capital city did have radio contact with their countries and were transmitting their needs, assembling their own citizens, some with critical medical needs, bringing them together, and planning to send them to the airport for evacuation.

Master Sgt. James Webb, the operations plans NCO, had off loaded from that first MC-130 and helped the aircrew push a 6,500-pound storage container with all the equipment to set up his operations center. The aircraft then taxied away to depart and Webb went looking for a forklift he could use to move the heavy container over to the side. He and the combat controllers found four, only one of which was in running condition. With some work, they got it started but it was prone to stall out and needed continual re-starts. Tech. Sgts. Charlie Lott and Jamie Jimenez, two transportation specialists, took charge of it and kept it in motion without rest for more than 48 hours until it finally broke down for good. Webb and the combat controllers looked at the parking ramp and made initial plans on how to use it as well as possible. There were a few small aircraft parked on one side of the ramp with no one around them. They pushed them over onto the grassy area and cleared more space.

The airfield was lighted (its power generators were running) and aircraft were already calling for landing instructions. Most were smaller, private aircraft, bringing in news media or coming to pick up people who were also showing up at the airport to meet them. By the middle of the night, there was a steady, crowded, but not yet overwhelming flow of airplanes. It was a first-come, first-serve situation. Aircraft were stacking up by early morning, however, with each aircrew describing their cargo on the radio as essential.

Around midnight, a Chinese Airbus A330 landed and taxied into the parking ramp. The crew didn’t understand the instructions from the CCT controllers and shut down their aircraft in a position that blocked much of the parking ramp. Senior Master Sgt. David Baldridge, Wasilausky’s NCOIC, immediately recognized the problem. The jumbo jet had a large number of passengers, all dressed in orange jump suits, and an even larger amount of cargo. There was no cargo door or handling equipment that could off-load the aircraft, and the Chinese said they wouldn’t leave without off-loading everything. The people available, mostly Chinese urban rescue personnel, formed a “bucket-brigade” line to hand boxes down the crew-entrance ladder. After a couple of hours in the line, Baldridge went after what would be needed next. He got one of the Chinese crewmembers and went looking for a way to push the A330 backward when the time came for it to leave. He found a tug big enough to tow the aircraft, and his Chinese assistant picked out a tow-bar. They returned and hooked it up. Just before 8:00 a.m., they pushed the jumbo aircraft back so it could start engines and taxi out. The jet had blocked almost half the parking ramp for eight hours. By now, the airport passenger concourses had filled with news media filming and broadcasting “breaking news” of the efforts to get the aircraft out of the way.

Coping with delays on the parking ramp, the combat controllers were also parking airborne aircraft in holding patterns in the sky around the airfield. By the time the A330 left, they had a stack-up of four-hour waits for large aircraft in the skies around Haiti. A couple of sergeants with hand-held radios and no access to computerized flight or load plans could only make their best guesses as to priorities of accumulating clouds of aircraft. Also, “help” was coming from many directions by mid-morning. Embassy staffers from various countries were arrayed around the CCT controllers and the card table control tower, making the case for priority of their countries’ airplanes in holding.

The departure of the A330 broke the dam holding back aircraft from parking and requiring unloading. Webb, operations superintendent in the first AFSOC aircraft, responded to e-mailed questions, and his account provides a great description of those next 50 hours:

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Douglas Brook and Tech. Sgt. Nicholas Wentworth carry an injured Haitian man at Troussaint L’Ouverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jan. 18, 2010. Both airmen, medics from Air Force Special Operations Command, were in Haiti as part of the U.S. response to the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck the country Jan. 12, 2010. U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Jeremy Lock.

The 10K forklift arrived on Chalk 3 [the third AFSOC aircraft to arrive]. SSgt Tom Curry came in on Chalk 2. I had him drive the forklift and I marshalled. We used the heck out of that forklift as aircraft started dropping out of the sky. I remember our Talon II landed at the same time as a Reserve AMC C-130.

Tom and I off-loaded both in record time. I had to run back and forth to help him with the pallets. …

Some, like the French, were put in difficult situations. They were directed by their government to wait on the airfield for their passengers. This took hours. Everyone was frustrated at them for taking up a parking spot for so long while other aircraft orbited and used up their fuel – forcing the other aircraft to gas up on the ground and deplete the existing fuel on the airport. It was a vicious circle. The delays also came from lack of ground handling equipment and the long wait in line for gas. We did our best to get them in and out fast … Our 10K forklift never stopped. I knew it wouldn’t last long, so I requested another 10K. Sure enough, the initial one’s hydraulics broke.

Some countries were frustrating to work with. They were under tremendous pressure to land their aircraft and get their media time. Their [embassy] liaisons would pressure us to let their aircraft land. The STS established procedures and enforced them … One aircraft just landed on his own and taxied in. The STS Chief and I ran over to the aircraft as they started to download their passengers. The Chief chewed some ass …

It was non-stop down there. Initially, I was the only guy marshalling aircraft. As fast as they landed, I’d run over and marshal them in. If I was already marshalling, then the STS guys would guide them in via their mini-bike, then hop off and marshal. I did get three hours [sleep] the first day so that we could begin to establish some sort of shift work. Once the helos started coming in, we would download the HH-53s by hand, set them off to the side, then when the SH-60s landed, we would upload them. It was either bottled water, Gatorade, or MRE boxes. We got smart and used luggage dollies to move the water. It was usually 90+ degrees outside added to the exhaust of the helicopters. We humped non-stop. …

In between marshalling and offloading/loading helos, I ran down to where the AMCITs [American citizens] were waiting for airlift out of there. I would talk to the aircrews, see how many they could take, run to the AMCIT holding area, tell the folks running it, they would count out the passengers, then I would walk the passengers down to the aircraft. Keep in mind, the engines were usually running, so I had to guide them in between the spinning props and past the exhaust. Some elderly women had trouble with that. Most women were carrying babies, diaper bags, water, and whatever else they could. They were always exhausted by the time they got to the aircraft. As I would walk back to our area, I would see a helo returning with his lights on to signal he had injured. I’d run over and help carry the litters to the med tent. Then go help upload more water. Anyway, the doc noticed I wasn’t walking in a straight line. He directed me to get an IV [intravenous feeding to fight dehydration]. I laid down for about twenty minutes while they did their thing, then I went back to the flightline …

One time I was getting ready to marshall a Canadian C-17 out. We finished pushing a Cessna 180 out of the way and I showed the pilot some helicopters and small aircraft that were behind him (I had to back him out). As I was waiting for engine start, a guy tapped my shoulder and asked if I was a medic. I told him no, but I knew where our docs were. He asked me to come look at this couple. We walked through this old hangar and out to the street off the airport. In the back of this SUV was a man with severe burns to his arm and he was incoherent. His right arm had blisters all over it. His wife, a tiny little lady, had a compound fracture to her right leg. Her foot was literally 90 degrees to the right and black as night. It was swollen and the bone was sticking out. She had some dressing wrapped around it. I carried the man by myself into the hangar to the flight line. Both of my legs were cramping and I was really worried that I would drop him. I asked some Haitians to grab four chairs from an office in the hangar. I set the couple down just as my first sergeant was driving the Gator [a communications vehicle] down the flightline. I waved him down and yelled for him to go get the docs. He whipped around and sped off. I treated for shock initially and got their information. Then I ran onto the C-17 to get their medic. He came over and examined the patients. The people with them said their house caved in on them and they were buried for two days. Our docs showed up and started IVs. One doc gave the guy a tracheotomy because he was so dehydrated that his tongue swelled up and blocked his airway. The other doc cleaned and treated the lady’s leg. She warned them that the only thing holding her foot on was the dressing. The doc and medics did a great job holding it while they worked. He said she had no pulse in her foot and she would probably lose it. I asked the Canadian medic if he could take the patients with them. They were headed to Montreal. The doc and I pursuaded them to stop in Miami – which they did.

[Both patients survived, with amputations.]. …

The Air Force medics he refers to were from two SOF Medical Elements, also from Hurlburt. The first one arrived led by Lt. Col. Lee Harvis, who accompanied Elton to the U.S. Embassy to aid in processing American patients collected there for evacuation.  The second element set up at the airport to handle those arriving directly to the airport and boarding aircraft for movement. They treated anyone who came asking and constituted the only critical-care facility with surgical capability in the airport area for the first few days. According to Elton’s statistics, the SOFME at the embassy treated a total of 362 patients. AFSOC surgeons performed 14 major surgeries/nine amputations, delivered one baby, surveyed 16 hospitals, directed medical triage of more than 8,000 AMCITS, and evacuated 167 patients. On Jan. 29, as medical capability had built up and improved at the embassy, both SOFME teams worked at the airfield until they returned home in February.

A U.S. airman from Air Force Special Operations Command  helps put ear plugs in the ears of an infant before boarding an Air Force C-130 Hercules aircraft flying out of Toussaint L’Ouverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jan. 15, 2010. U.S. citizens living in Haiti were waiting to be evacuated from Port-au-Prince in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake. DoD photo by Master Sgt. Russell E. Cooley IV.

The initial six PJs accompanied Harvis to work the movement of six patients to the airport for evacuation. At the embassy, they made contact with the Fairfax County, Va., Urban Rescue Task Force (VATF). Seeing an opportunity, the PJs offered their assistance and, for 12 days, augmented VATF. Quoting their After Action Report:

For eight days, the rescue team worked with VATF to rescue earthquake victims in Haiti. The team conducted 13 technical rescues of personnel trapped in the rubble using collapsed structure and confined space techniques. The pararescuemen crawled for miles through collapsed buildings, often through tight spaces, pulling out survivors and assessing the structural integrity of the rubble for the application of mechanical tools/methods. They provided medical treatment to 17 critically injured personnel, and they treated countless other less severe injuries with “tailgate medicine” from the back of the HUMVEE.

The PJs who crawled over the dead bodies decomposing in the tropical heat to reach the live victims made one of those rescues on live television when a Haitian woman was pulled alive from the rubble and hoisted into a helicopter. Her crushed legs could not be freed and were amputated underground to allow her extraction. Elton related that the VATF appreciated the help from the PJs as the airmen were capable of digging through tunnels, planning and installing structural supports, operating extraction equipment such as the “jaws of life,” and providing medical care. These functions are specialties in the VATF and are each done by separate people who usually have to swap out during tunneling operations.

Wasilausky and her logisticians made contact with the cargo-handling companies on the airfield and developed relationships beginning Jan. 14. They worked in close teamwork with three of the four companies. The fourth took offense that morning of Jan. 14 when they found that Baldridge had “borrowed’ their towing equipment during the night to move that Chinese Air Bus. Wasilausky related that the other three companies helped whenever asked and even refused payment when she offered formal contracts. Eventually, she contracted for them to provide diesel fuel and lubricants as the airfield fuel farm didn’t have those available.

When the first elements of the Air Mobility Command’s Contingency Response Group (CRG) arrived the evening of Jan. 14, the people working the cargo off-loading were totally spent. Baldridge explained the situation to them and, although their normal procedure after a tiring deployment was to rest, they split shifts and immediately put people on the flight line. Wasilausky, who had to order her exhausted people to rest because of concerns for safe operations during those first two days, said that it was a “miracle” there were no accidents. And there were none, not even the smallest taxi accident.

The Haiti JSOAD grew, evolved, and adapted, reaching 224 people at its peak. AFSOC sent UAV support to provide eyes over the capital city and later over other parts of the country, aiding in planning for aid distribution and security. When he learned he needed to plan for rotary-wing deliveries of aid and possibly for air drops, Elton called the 623rd AOC and his wing commander back at Hurlburt. Six of each (air drop planners and helo planners) arrived eight hours later, after a five-hour flight from Hurlburt, meaning those dozen people had been notified, packed, and boarded the aircraft only three hours after Elton asked for them. The helo planners provided plans to helicopter crews who picked up aid cargo. The air drop planners, more CCT, surveyed up to 50 potential drop zones throughout the country, and supported three actual drops.

Chaplain (Capt.) Eusebia D. Rios blesses one of three triplets in the children’s ward of the University of Miami Hospital compound adjacent to the Toussaint L’Ouverture International Airport in Port au Prince, Haiti, Jan. 29, 2010. The babies were born in the wake of the 7.1 magnitude earthquake which devastated the capital city Jan.12, 2010. Rios, deployed from the 27th Special Operations Wing at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., served as the only chaplain to more than 1,500 military men and women encamped at the airport as part of Operation Unified Response. Known as the “Happy Chappy,” Chaplain Rios ranged the airport day and night ministering to the needs of military and civilian alike, lifting their spirits and raising morale with each “Amen” she offered. U.S. Air Force photo by Chief Master Sgt. Ty Foster.

The people at the airport had no beds for the first three days and slept in airline luggage carts or on the concrete hangar floors – sometimes to wake up rumbling through an aftershock. After nine days, they had tents and showers, as their seven civil engineers put up their 21 tents and added plumbing. By the time 30 days had elapsed, they had turned over these operations to others and returned to their home bases.

Some organizations, countries, and news media complained about the initial system of determining landing priorities. Necessarily, there were some errors; some caused by not knowing what was on some aircraft, some because of misinformation about what was on the aircraft, some just due to the chaos of the first few days. The Associated Press (AP) investigated the claims of bias toward military aircraft and other accusations. Their published results found there was no evidence of bias or institutional error in the control of air traffic at Port-au-Prince during the period of Jan. 18 until early February. The written records began with the transfer of control of the field to the Contingency Response Group from Air Mobility Command (AMC). When AMC gained control, they set up slot times for aircraft arrivals and enforced the procedures. To achieve order and end the crunch of aircraft at Port-au-Prince, AMC did reduce the numbers of aircraft coming in, but the action coincided with partial opening of the seaport and another entry point for aid. The AP article did not address (and even ignored) the period of Jan. 13 to Jan. 18. No known written records exist for that period. The combat controllers of AFSOC continued to perform the ATC function after the handover to AMC as the AMC air traffic controllers awaited their airlift. To shorten that process, Elton and the 623rd AOC from Hurlburt used two AFSOC C-130s to move the ATC element. The Special Tactics (CCT, PJ, combat weathermen) involved in Operation Unified Response were due for operational deployments elsewhere within three weeks.

In total, the combat controllers conducted air traffic control at the airport for 12 days in continuous shifts. More controllers from Pope AFB augmented them on the third day, providing much needed relief. They reduced the average four-hour holding time for larger aircraft on Jan. 14 by half on Jan. 15 and, by the third day, to less than 15 minutes for the rest of their tenure. They amassed impressive statistics in two weeks of operation, bringing in up to 165 aircraft a day. Overall, they facilitated delivery of more than 4,000,000 pounds of cargo for humanitarian aid. According to Elton, they averaged an operation, a take-off or landing, every 4.2 minutes. This included more than 800 helicopter operations and well over 4,000 airplanes of all sizes.

Elton necessarily operated on many levels. Elton, as SOCSOUTH Forward, met at least every day with Keen and attended daily meetings at the U.S. Embassy. Keen gave direction and top cover with DoD, with other organizations at the embassy, and with the international media. Embassy meetings also meant working with the UN and various non-governmental agencies (NGOs). The UN coordinated the international effort, and USAID was named the lead federal agency for the United States. The U.S. Embassy became the primary place for coordination and communication with all of the U.S. government departments and NGOs, and it eventually set up a central tasking function for Keen. Lt. Cmdr. Hyder and the SSAT members became liaison officers and liaison NCOs with various agencies and conducted much of the information-sharing by acting as “runners” until the cell phones worked. Information from the embassy helped give early warning for things coming into the airport, whether it was high-priority cargo or significant VIPs visiting to survey the humanitarian efforts.

While at the airfield, Elton handled a large number of celebrities and dignitaries in a concentrated amount of time. He wrote in an e-mail:

I was interviewed by Katie Couric, Brian Williams, Al Roker, BBC, Reuters, French TV 24 and did two telecon interviews with 250 reporters. I coordinated directly with Senator John Edwards to arrange the evacuation of 28 critically injured Haitian citizens to Florida. John Travolta showed up in his Boeing 707 last night, but I went to bed and had a few airmen go get a picture with him. I briefed SECSTATE Hillary Clinton, former POTUS Bill Clinton, and more 3-4 star generals than I can count.

U.S. civil affairs officers with the Special Operations Component Command talk with local market vendors to assess the Haitian peoples needs. The United States and other international military and civilian aid agencies were conducting humanitarian and disaster relief operations as part of Operation Unified Response in the aftermath of the earthquake that hit the area on Jan. 12, 2010. U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communications Specialist Robert J. Fluegel.

Every governmental VIP visit also soaked up the available vehicles, forcing extra planning and sometimes elaborate work-arounds to continue truly essential tasks. A couple of people who recognized the situation and made themselves available to help out got special mention from Elton. He appreciated Micaela White of DHS who, early in the deployment, walked the flightline with him and saw firsthand what was going on, then provided support for his people and their efforts directly to Washington. Her phone was only able to send texts, but she used it to by-pass bureaucratic barriers, clearing some aircraft full of passengers to leave for the states when clearance became difficult at the embassy. Later, Denis McDonough of the National Security Council got involved and even offered a couple of times to call the president. Elton again:

I had a problem with where we were taking U.S. citizens and asked a National Security Council staffer to help me out. He emailed Janet Napolitano on his BlackBerry. She authorized me to move any U.S. Citizen to any U.S. location, overriding (previous) guidance. …

That was one of two instances of scrambling to do good that Elton related fondly. In this first case, the governor of Pennsylvania was on the ramp at Port-au-Prince to effect the movement of 54 orphans to be adopted by the citizens of his state. The multi-agency hold placed on the aircraft through the embassy had become unbreakable. McDonough skipped over several levels of multiple bureaucratic chains of command. The second instance involved when his CCT controllers diverted a Belgian jumbo jet to the Dominican Republic. The large aircraft would have “clobbered” the parking ramp at a critical time. Elton then recalled two C-130s from Homestead, Fla., where they were re-fueling after cargo runs into Port-au-Prince. Unable to get slot times in the newly organized system, Elton directed them to take off without it. Without missing any of the scheduled “slot time aircraft,” the CCT controllers worked the two C-130s into the flow. They conducted engine-running on-loads of 117 Belgian nationals and flew them to the Dominican Republic to meet their large transport for their trip home.

The AFSOC deployment in Haiti also served a unique function as well as the de facto initial entry force for SOCSOUTH follow-on forces as they deployed civil affairs and psychological operations units from Ft. Bragg, N.C. These units headquartered at the embassy as they built up their capability and determined how to get the word out and aid in Haiti’s eventual recovery. By the end of January, SOCSOUTH Forward was at the U.S. Embassy and the air element was packing to go home. Elton fulfilled a similar and necessarily informal role with 12th Air Force, AFSOUTH, as it provided a deployable air component to serve under Keen’s JTF. Air Mobility Command’s Contingency Response Group (CRG) also assembled at the airfield to run humanitarian airlift operations and assumed control of various parts of the airfield operation as its deployed capability increased. AFSOC coordinated with both AF organizations through the 623rd, 618th, and 612th AOCs, tying together AF operations with a SOF air component, thus serving a function never done before by a SOF air component. By the end of January, SOCSOUTH was up and running at the Embassy, the airfield was no longer the only entry point into Haiti, the USS Comfort was attending patients in the seaport, and AFSOC’s mission was complete. Almost all of those in the AFSOC element were home by the middle of February.

Ten days later AFSOC Commander Lt. Gen. Don Wurster met in a hangar at Hurlburt Field with Elton and the folks who executed their mission in operation Unified Response. He referred to the Hurlburt wing’s Operational Readiness Inspection, scheduled to start the next week. “You’ve already passed your inspection,” said the general. “You got an Excellent.”


Maj. Gen. Richard Comer (USAF-Ret) spent 32 years on active duty, 17 of which were...