By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
FORWARD OPERATING BASE MANDRIN, Haiti, June 20, 2011 - Stepping off the Black Hawk helicopter here, the scene is similar to that of many forward operating bases in Afghanistan.
But a walk down the makeshift gravel road that cuts through the heart of the site reveals one glaring omission.
Gone are the big war machines decked out in armor and firepower. And the 400 troops here are not slinging M4 machine guns, grenade launchers and sundry belts of ammunition.
Make no mistake. The weapons are here, just not in sight.
"We try to minimize the exposure of the weapons," Army Maj. Wynn Nugent, operations officer for Task Force Bon Voizen, said. "It sends a bad message, especially being here on a humanitarian exercise. We still carry them because we need to, but we try not to display them."
Perched on high ground in the Artibonite department, or province, the troops deployed here operate similarly in many ways to operations overseas. Almost all of the U.S. military services are combined for a joint mission. Also, a handful of foreign militaries have teams here. They form up under a single command structure to carry out their operations with military precision.
And the site is almost entirely self-sufficient. Only local fuel and some transportation are contracted. Satellites and radio antennas jut from the tent tops providing communications locally and to and from the states. Thousands of gallons of water are pumped and purified daily from an on-site well for the troops. Food and vegetables are shipped in and trucked to the chow hall where hot meals are provided daily. Helicopters buzz in and out delivering fresh troops and discharging those returning home.
But that is pretty much where the comparisons stop. Task Force Bon Voizen, which translates as "good neighbor," serves as a picture-perfect image of the U.S. military's soft-power efforts, and the task force's only enemies here are time and budget.
While the troops call leaving the base "going outside the wire," it is actually a few flimsy strands of concertina, easily infiltrated by guineas, dogs, pigs and the occasional donkey.
Its primary purpose is to keep people from walking through the base camp to visit those living in the surrounding community.
"When they see it, they don't come through," Nugent said. "It's for their safety more than ours. We have machinery moving through here, big vehicles moving around."
The Haitian government chose this region for the task force's efforts, chiefly because of the influx of residents after last year's earthquake. Thousands left the devastated Port-au-Prince area, seeking food, shelter and jobs in the surrounding rural areas. The Artibonite area is about 70 miles northwest of Port-au-Prince, and Haitian officials would rather improve the infrastructure here than have the displaced return to the already overcrowded inner city that is still struggling to recover.
Since the task force began its mission at the end of April, it has treated more than 800 dental patients and nearly 23,000 medical patients. That includes delivering a few babies, providing emergency surgery and constructing a mouthpiece for a child born with a cleft palate so that he can eventually learn to talk.
Its veterinary technicians treated almost 1,500 area animals. And the engineers will leave here next week after building one school, two clinics and bathroom facilities.
For their efforts, the troops here have received "nothing but love," Nugent said.
"What we're doing here is a drop in the bucket for what these people need, truthfully. But we're providing them just a glimmer of hope," Nugent said. "We show them, 'Hey, the world's not giving up on you. We're here and we're fighting for you.'"
Nugent said the locals are poor by American standards, but they are easygoing and hardworking. Some gather outside the fence, but they are just curious.
"You don't see a lot of begging. If they are asking for something, they are asking for a job," he said. "They want to work and earn what they receive. They are not just looking for a handout.
"They love America. They love Americans. I think they would be the 51st state if we let them," Nugent added and laughed.
But while Nugent joked, it is exactly that sentiment that U.S. officials hope to instill, especially in these years following the earthquake.
"The real value is ... we're having incredible positive impact on the lives of disenfranchised Haitians," Dan Foote, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy said during a visit to the site today. "And in doing so, we're also sending the broader message that the United States is a friend of Haiti, and we are going to be here in the good times and the bad."
Foote called Haiti a "great friend" to the United States. Exercises such as these are critical to maintaining that relationship, he added.
"This is an on-the-ground example of real, tangible assistance to the population," he said.
The task force is commanded by members of the Louisiana National Guard, but troops from other states have joined in for two-week rotations including Florida, Massachusetts, Georgia, North Dakota, Colorado and New York.
The Army Reserve provided military police and engineers. Active-duty Marines provide civil affairs support, and the Air Force provides weathermen and medical staff.
Foreign countries supporting the efforts as an official part of the task force included doctors from Colombia and Canada and engineers from Belize.
Additional support also came from the U.N. peacekeeping force here as Japanese engineers volunteered to help on a project. Policemen from Argentina provided crowd control at medical and dental sites in the cities.
And international nongovernmental organizations such as People to People International and Operation International Children donated 2,500 school supply kits for the task force to distribute.
This year's exercise launched from a similar operation here last year, put in place to help with earthquake relief. Budget cuts already have tightened the belt of this year's operation as it transitioned from operational funding to an exercise with a different funding pot.
An exercise isn't planned for next year, but one is on the books for 2013, officials said.
Only a handful of events remain before the closing ceremonies next week. The rest of the month will be spent returning the land that the base now sits on to its original condition. The last task force member is due to leave the first week of July after settling all of the contracts and paying the vendors.
But even as task force members prepare to leave, officials agree that the impression made here will last, for many locals, a lifetime.
And, as Washington begins it budget battles and senior Defense Department leaders are forced to make hard funding choices, military and civilian officials here hope that this exercise doesn't end up on the cutting room floor.
"These are the sort of things that don't create political messages, but create human messages," Foote said. "Our hope here, from my point of things, is that we can continue to do exercises and missions like this into the future, because every time we do that we win a new generation of hearts and minds."