JTE Haiti: Lasting Impressions (Charles Andre, 19th Co.)

by Navy Lt. Tonya H. Wakefield

In a steadily worsening political situation, the advance party of Joint Task Force Haiti faced numerous difficulties in ensuring the safety of its troops , yet it
made significant mission progress during its short time in country.

The task – force commander and five staff personnel arrived in Port- au-Prince Oct. 4, eleven days prior to the scheduled resignation of Lt. Gen. Raoul Cédras, Haiti’s military leader and the spearhead of the 1991 coup. In Port- au- Prince, the six joined a small group of Army Special Forces trainers who for two weeks had been working out of the Villa Creole Hotel . Two days later, the remainder of the advance party arrived, increasing its number to 54. The newcomers were lodged in an old hotel called La Griffonne, but the Villa Creole continued to serve as the center of operations. The advance group prepared for the arrival of the USS Harlan County, which carried approximately 250 United Nations troops as well as construction equipment and materials for the establishment of a of base camp.

Even though the civilian government of Haiti was eager to accept our assistance, the lack of FAD’H cooperation was evident. Liaison between the task – force commander, the U.N. special representative, the acting U.S. ambassador and Haitian authorities resulted in a flurry of correspondence concerning preparation for the arrival of U.N. troops . Letters exchanged between the prime minister, the port captain and the U.S. Embassy arranged for the Harlan County’s use of pier facilities and informed the FAD’H of the ship’s pending arrival and its security requirements.

But the FAD’H, controlled by Cédras and Lt. Col. Michael Francois, displayed apprehension at the outset, and Cédras publicly referred to the Harlan County’s scheduled arrival as an invasion . As of Friday, Oct. 8 , the Haitian Army’s 52nd Company, controlling access to the inter national airport , had received no word from FAD’H headquarters regarding efforts to establish the U.N. base camp there.

Our visit to the FAD’H headquarters Friday afternoon was met with mock indifference. We were received politely by Col. Charles Andre of the Haitian Navy, who purported to be the senior officer present and stated that he had received no word regarding the base camp and that little could be done until the following week. Our visit the next day met with an even colder reception . We were eventually escorted to Col. Andre’s office, where he launched into a lengthy commentary indicating his personal approval of U.S. intervention but his lack of confidence in the U.N. On our visit to the FAD’H headquarters the day prior to the arrival of the Harlan County, we were made to wait and were not offered seats . After considerable persuasion on our part , one of several guards went upstairs and quickly returned, stating that our point of contact was not there. When we asked about three other officers, including the officer of the day, he gave the same response, without checking to see whether they were present.

On Oct. 11 , the Harlan County attempted to dock and was met by several armed patrol boats and a crowd of angry protesters. The ship was soon diverted
back to Guantanamo Bay. Its departure and the lack of U.S. resolve were treated as a FAD’H victory in the local press.

The advance party was left in a precarious situation, armed with only 9mm pistols and lodged in two separate locations . Its leadership now faced the challenge of maintaining morale in a rapidly deteriorating political environment and ensuring that cooler heads would prevail . Given the unit’s noncombatant structure and limited firepower, a moment of panic on anyone’s part could have been devastating. Amid the constant sound of gunshots and vivid press accounts of the Haitian Minister of Defense’s assassination, the group’s leaders succeeded in maintaining morale and discipline through a combination of personal interaction and leadership by example.

Personal interaction included a knowledge of personal details and the use of humor. Under the circumstances, the importance of “ knowing the troops” could
not be underestimated, and a well timed display of a sense of humor served to ease tensions and to build loyalty. Orders and corrections gained emphasis because they came not from a rank or position, but from people whom we knew and respected.

Leadership by example included occasional departures from traditional roles in order to strengthen unit morale and build esprit de corps. While the military rank structure remained intact and discipline was crucial, leaders made certain adaptations to lead effectively in this potentially volatile environment. A prime example was the inclusion of senior officers in the watch rotation at the Villa Creole. Armed sentry watches were established at both hotels, and roving patrols were added later; all personnel were included without exception . Although the additional watch rotations could have been conducted by 0-3s and below , the inclusion of the senior officers boosted morale and stifled complaints.

The real key to maintaining unit morale and avoiding problems was interaction between combat veterans and those with no combat experience . Most of the senior officers and NCOs of the advance party were members of Army Special Forces, and their demeanor was pivotal in maintaining group composure . Regardless of rank, each SF soldier was placed in a defacto leadership role, setting the tone of the unit as a whole. In monitoring radio frequencies, the U.S. Embassy net, and press accounts of shootings and demonstrations, the administrative personnel made an unconscious note of the SF soldiers’ reactions. Their overall state of mental preparedness, tempered by caution and situational awareness, was in most
cases emulated by the rest of the unit.

Despite the overt lack of FAD’H cooperation, the advance party made consider able progress during its 10-day stay in Port- au- Prince. It selected initial projects from lists provided by Haitian officials, conducted site visits to the first school to be renovated, obtained permission for U.N. medical personnel to visit local hospitals , conducted site surveys of the airfield, and made lists of FAD’H equipment needs, including desired spare parts and technical assistance, in spite of the armed forces’ apparent unwillingness to cooperate.

Though its progress was quickly halted, the advance party’s accomplishments represented not only a useful lesson in leader ship but also a ray of hope for U.S. and Haitian relations . Perhaps the greatest accomplishment was the discovery of the good will and hopeful disposition of the Haitian people . Should the Governors Island Accord be resuscitated or a similar solution be offered in the future, humanitarian and technical assistance efforts will have a foundation upon which to build. Lessons learned from JTF Haiti will bene fit not only the U.S. government and the U.N., but the Haitian people as well.

Navy Lt. Tonya Wakefield was a member of the JTF Haiti advance party. A 1990 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, she is currently assigned to Patrol Squadron 30 at the Naval Air Station, Jacksonville, Fla.