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Army combat vet patrols brutal streets of Haitian tragedy

| Sunday, Jan. 24, 2010

PORT-AU-PRINCE -- It's a hot Thursday afternoon in the heart of a Haitian slum called "Boston." Army Capt. Andrew Salmo, 28, watches a policeman muscle a screaming man into the back of a pick-up turned into a police wagon.

His offense: Not showing proper respect to a passing officer fisting an AK-47 machine gun.

To the right of the West Point grad, on the lone remaining wall of a shack destroyed by the Jan. 12 earthquake that devastated this impoverished Caribbean island nation, is black graffiti reading "Tupac" in homage to the dead American rapper and a string of Creole words -- what residents of Boston say is a gang tag.

On Salmo's left, a gathering mob of rail-thin Haitians mumble questions: Who he is• What is he doing• Why is the American with the police• He is in charge• He is young.

"Can he give me a job?" asks Felix Theodot, 48. "No job. Money• No money, oui. Food• I see."

When the police speed off, the Haitians begin to smile. Children, many of them naked, run up to grab Salmo's hand.

"I'm walking a fine line," he says. "You need to find out how the people see the police and the government. You don't want to rush to failure. You want to help."

This is the new beat for a combat infantry vet from the Iraq War -- the only man in uniform who strolls the poorest, roughest parts of the ravaged capital, a sprawl of tragedy that stretches from the pancake moonscape of downtown through the ghettos of Cite Soleil, Brooklyn, TiHaiti and Boston.

America, Salmo and the 142 infantrymen of A Company, 1st Battalion of the 325th Paratrooper Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, are the "tip of the spear" in Haiti, thrust not into battle but at the face of misery. He has no enemies, but plenty of obstacles. He is trying to quickly fathom cultures alien to him, learn a Haitian history marked by long U.S. occupations and adapt a crew trained to kill to help heal a shattered nation.

"Slowly, carefully," Salmo says. "There are similarities, some common threads I can pull from my experience in Iraq. There's corruption of people on top. Knowing that the truth is rarely what you will hear.

"I'll figure it out as I go."

7:14 p.m., Jan. 16

Four days after the 7.0 magnitude earthquake in Haiti, Salmo and his wife, Jessica, 27, were watching the comedy "Youth in Revolt" at the Westwood cinema in Fayetteville, N.C., just outside Ft. Bragg.

He felt his cell phone vibrate. He put down chocolate-covered raisins and a tall Sprite, looked at the woman who married him before his deployment to Kirkuk, Iraq, in 2005, and realized his battalion in America's "Global Response Force" was going somewhere.

A quick conversation and he knew it was Haiti. The Christopher, Ill., native said goodbye to his wife, knowing he might not get to talk to her again before her birthday on April 13, petted his basset hound, Chief Illiniwek, and said goodbye to a change of command he thought would arrive in February.

By Jan. 18 he was sleeping in a rock pile on the northern edge of the city, a bloating body marking the roadway.

He began feeding 4,000 people the next evening. Then he ran out of food. The battalion, growing larger with more arrivals every day, moved to the Ministry of Agriculture in the capital's Croix des Missions section.

He wasn't ordered to feed anyone in a tent city next door, which also has grown larger as the days dragged on. But his fellow soldiers began paying -- out of their own pockets -- the men in the encampment money for day labor.

Salmo paid his interpreters with Meals-Ready-To-Eat.

"They feed their families, and they can sell that in the markets," he said. "When I get money, I will pay them, too."

On Jan. 21 he, his men and the interpreters fed another 4,000 in the worst of the worst slums, TiHaiti. To the newest soldiers, the ones without combat patches on their sleeves commemorating fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan, it's a grueling but exotic day in the Army.

To those who have spent years in the Third World, especially those who were deployed to Haiti during civil unrest in 1994, the mood is more complex.

"It's a political stunt," said Sgt. Lisle Farnum, 34, a former Marine who patrolled Cap Hatien in 1994. "We haven't been given enough supplies to really help the people. Our brigade is right now eating three times the amount of food we're passing out.

"I want to help someone. For the first time in 10 years, I get to help someone instead of shooting at him. But we need the food and the water, and it isn't here."

12:04 p.m., Jan. 21

Salmo stares into the tired eyes of Cite Soleil police inspector Aristide Rosemond. He says the U.S. Army needs Haitian police to lead them in the slums. But people keep telling Salmo they don't trust the officers.

Residents lynched two of the estimated 5,000 prisoners who escaped from the national penitentiary during the earthquake. They didn't bother to summon the police. Rosemond says that criminals will soon retrieve guns that have been buried underground -- of the 8,000 firearms he estimates exist in the capital's slums, 350 have been registered legally with the government.

"What if we offered food and water for the guns?" Salmo asks.

"But then you would have to take care of the guns," says Rosemond through an interpreter.

"We could do that," Salmo said.

Rosemond tells him that it would be better to cordon off whole neighborhoods and search for fugitives with the police, who can identify them. He says 3,000, maybe 4,000, hardened gang members are heading for TiHaiti and other hardscrabble neighborhoods.

Salmo asks how his men can pick out gang members.

Rosemond tells him they mutilate their urethras with toothbrushes, elongating them, scarring them. Salmo thinks to himself that he can't ask his soldiers to stop every man in the ghetto and order them to drop their trousers.

"Would you like to see a picture?" Aristide asks.

"No, that won't be necessary," Salmo says.

U.S. State Department liaison to the police, Rob Campbell, 43, later tells Salmo that if his company lived in the slums with the people, it would deter crime and make it easier to swiftly distribute aid when it arrives.

A contractor with decades of experience in law enforcement, Campbell adds that only about 350 gang members exist. Brazilian infantrymen, who have patrolled the slums for years, and neighbors tell Salmo that dreadlocks on the men, double-pierced ears and other sorts of markers identify them as likely gang members.

"It's a paradox," says Salmo. "I can see that those in the higher ranks want to legitimize the government and the police, and they have sound reasons for doing that if they want long-term success.

"But will that keep the goodwill of the people• Will they begin to hate us if we cozy up with these guys?"

5:47 p.m., Jan. 21

Salmo drives to the airport. He can find no officer who can tell him where he can get food or water to aid people.

Salmo returns the next day and speaks to a Navy crew on the flightline supervising the unloading of mammoth pallets of food. They tell him that he can pick the chow up there.

So he does every day after that, taking as much as he can. In between, he stops at the sidewalk gas vendors to check on fuel prices -- a gallon of gas is nearing the pre-earthquake $4 per gallon, thanks to trucks rolling in from neighboring Dominican Republic.

With lower transportation costs, he thinks food prices should stabilize soon.

"I'm learning to roll with the punches," Salmo says. "There still isn't enough aid that can get to us, but we can get some, and the situation is getting better."

He feeds thousands more. He doesn't invite the police, only the Brazilians. The Haitians he meets applaud the decision.

"Only the Americans should help us first," says Lucan LeConte, 25, of the Brooklyn slums. "First you do it, then give the government a hand to help us. I'm afraid of the police."

4:08 p.m. Jan. 22

A man sprawls on the concrete outside the tent city at Cite Soleil. Blood runs from his crushed skull like juice from a melon. Cards litter his corpse. None of the U.S. infantrymen knows what that means. Is he another felon sentenced to vigilante justice?

They stroll past him and begin feeding thousands. Within an hour they run out of food. But in that hour Salmo talked to enough people to know how the man died.

"It was a voodoo killing," he says. "A baby disappeared in Cite Soleil. The people thought he was a voodoo body snatcher. He was mentally ill, but they thought the spirits were in him.

"I haven't figured out the cards yet."

But he will.

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