By Lt. Gen. Ken Keen
U.S. Army, Commander, Joint Task Force – Haiti
April 19, 2010 - I believe no one can come to Haiti and leave unchanged. I have certainly been personally and professionally affected by what I have experienced since Jan. 12. Over the course of three months, I’ve had the chance to take in a number of observations, too many to list in this blog, so I decided to select what I feel are the “Top 5.”
1.Respond Quickly and Effectively
2.Protect the People, Always
3.Build Partnerships with Key Players
4.Coordinate and Collaborate to Achieve Unity of Effort
Respond Quickly and Effectively
The rapid deployment of forces and capabilities was effective, but not always efficient. In the initial hours after the earthquake, we had limited situational awareness of the extent of the damage and we were unsure of the critical needs of the Haitian people and government. In order to respond quickly, our initial “push” of forces and relief was executed outside the formal planning, sourcing, and tracking mechanisms. The only immediate lifeline to Port-au-Prince was through Haiti’s airport. Once we had the 1st Special Operations Wing, 621st Contingency Response Wing, and 24th Air Expeditionary Group on the ground, we were able to begin operating the airport. Within 28 hours of the earthquake, the pipeline of relief supplies, U.S. military forces and thousands of volunteers began to flow into country. Although it was ad hoc and chaotic at first, the U.S. military and the international response was effective enough to provide food, water, medical aid and search and rescue support, avoiding any civil unrest or unnecessary loss of life.
Protect the People, Always
We recognized early on in the relief phase of this humanitarian assistance operation that the tenets of counterinsurgency operations (COIN) were very relevant in this non-kinetic environment. Throughout the operation, Joint Task Force – Haiti sought to establish relationships with the Haitian people. “Protection of the populace” was the centerpiece of all our efforts. Leaders and troops maintained contact with the Haitians in the spontaneous camps, as well locating their operation centers in the heart of the city. While security was a concern, it was never an impediment to our ability to engage with the local populace and offer a hand of friendship. Our troops’ actions on the ground sent a clear message to the people of Haiti, “The United States cares and we are here to help.”
Build Partnerships with Key Players
Success in a humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operation hinges on partnerships. The partnerships we shared (and developed) with the Government of Haiti, United Nations, United States Agency for International Development and nongovernmental organizations were instrumental in the overall relief operation. My relationship with the UN force commander was an example of this strong partnership. Developing relationships and partnerships from the beginning and throughout the relief and recovery phases takes a lot of work, and leaders must devote both time and energy to make it work. I made it a point to meet daily with NGOs from the various internally displaced person camps, and I encouraged my leaders to do the same. This not only established a rapport, but it ensured a common understanding of the situation at-hand, aligned our priorities with the camp leaders and clarified misinformation.
Coordinate and Collaborate to Achieve Unity of Effort
A key to the JTF-Haiti’s success was its ability to coordinate and collaborate (C2) with all the organizations and agencies involved in the response and relief efforts. The Humanitarian Assistance Coordination Center was a perfect example of how C2 should work. It pulled together the efforts of JTF-H, UN military forces, USAID, and NGOs creating a humanitarian common operating picture of exactly what assistance was required and who would provide it. The HACC was plugged into every facet of the interagency, inter-governmental, and multi-national environment, ensuring all humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts were coordinated and synchronized.
About 36 hours after the earthquake, I walked onto the tarmac of Haiti’s international airport and was greeted by hundreds of news media. We knew the circumstances surrounding the earthquake would be such that the eyes of the world would be focused on Haiti. We made the decision early on that we (JTF-H) would be transparent, approachable and responsive to the public. We embedded media at every opportunity and used social media (Twitter and Facebook) to communicate to our followers, audiences and the world. One of the products that we developed in order to coordinate and synchronize our messaging within JTF-H (and outside) was the “Two Pager.” As the title implies, it was a two-page quick reference that included themes, priorities and talking points. It was updated daily and disseminated throughout JTF-H and shared within the interagency. Quite simply, it helped coordinate, integrate and synchronize our communication efforts from the strategic level down to the tactical level.
In the coming months, I am sure there will be a very thorough joint lessons learned report from the U.S. military and U.S. Government for that matter. In this blog I wanted to share my “Top 5” observations as I viewed things from my foxhole.
I depart Haiti on April 18, turning over the reins to Maj. Gen. Sim Trombitas, commander of Army South. I had the honor and privilege of working side-by-side with all our U.S. military services; Ambassador Ken Merten and the U.S. Embassy team; USAID’s Office of Response Coordinator led initially by Ambassador Lew Lucke and now by Chris Milligan; the UN Peace Keeping Forces from 18 nations led by Brazilian Maj. Gen. Floriano Peixoto; hundreds of NGOs like the Jenkins-Penn Haitian Relief Organization led by Sean Penn; the Government of Haiti leadership from President Preval, Prime Minister Bellerive, to all their ministers; and the mayors and numerous community leaders in the IDP camps. All my best to everyone who has dedicated themselves to this truly noble mission and may the beacon of light continue to shine on Haiti.