Bringing the Military's Might to Aid Haiti

Over the past few days we've seen American ships and aircraft and military personnel converging upon the Haiti earthquake zone. They're on a life-and-death mission . . . and they DO have a plan. Here's national security correspondent David Martin:

Water, water everywhere, and yesterday it finally got to people who need it.

Paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne landed on a hill where survivors had gathered. So often these days, the face of America is that of a soldier - in this case, Captain Jonathan Hartsock:

"I brought my paratroopers in to help the people here of Haiti recover from this earthquake. I'm just trying to establish ourselves here. I'm getting ourselves established, all of our personnel in, all of our equipment in - medical personnel, medical equipment - so we can begin to help these people recover from the earthquake."

The log jam at the airport has put the 82nd behind schedule. An 800-man battalion was supposed to be on the ground Friday but by yesterday there were only 240.

The main port is a disaster area, and until a second one can be opened up at Cap-Haitien on the north shore, the American military is trying to move into Haiti through that single-runway airport.

The vice president likened it to shoving a bowling ball through a straw.

"We were able yesterday to get 17 airframes in," Joe Biden said. "We have the capacity to send in 700 airframes."

Complete Coverage: Devastation in Haiti

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who made a first-hand inspection yesterday, said one of the first questions she asked the military was why not parachute troops and supplies in. She got the same answer reporters got when they asked General Douglas Fraser, the commander of the operation:

"Air drop is dangerous for people on the ground because when people see things falling they will run to where that is, and so it can actually cause more problems than it causes help."

Which is why, General Fraser said, "We started moving ships almost immediately after we found out that there was a catastrophe in Haiti."

The first big deck to arrive was the carrier Vinson with 19 helicopters on board. It got there Friday but only because it happened to be at sea off the East Coast when the quake hit. Unlike a hurricane, said Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen, you can't see an earthquake coming.

"This was a crisis that was a bolt out of the blue if you will, and in that regard the response time, I think, for having no idea this was going to occur, this has been really remarkable."

(AP/Kristopher Wilson, U.S. Navy)
Ships that were in port had to load supplies before they could get underway. It will be tomorrow before these amphibious ships with 14 helicopters and 2,200 Marines reach Haiti. The hospital ship Comfort is finally underway from Baltimore, but its multiple operating rooms and hundreds of hospital beds are still five days away from Haiti.

(Left: Marines assigned to the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit bound for Haiti embark aboard the multi-purpose amphibious assault ship USS Bataan in Morehead City, N.C., Jan. 15, 2010.)

"There are just some certain facts of life that affect how quickly you can do some of these things," said Defense Secretary Robert Gates. "The collapse of the infrastructure in Haiti, the small size of the airport, the time it takes a ship to get from point A to point B, those are all just facts of life."

There is another fact of life Gates didn't mention. The U.S. is fighting two wars.

Most of the 82nd Airborne is either in Iraq or Afghanistan. And now the U.S. military is taking on a major new operation which is still growing in size and which the vice president says has no end in sight.

"We're in for the long haul," said Biden. "The Haitian people are our friends. They're our partners. They're our neighbors. We're not going to abandon them in their time of need, and their time of need is going to extend well beyond the ensuing months. It's going to extend for the next several years."

Another big deck amphib is likely to head toward Haiti tomorrow. Each morning for at least the next week, when a Haitian survivor looks out to sea, there will be more American ships on the horizon.

"The most important thing for people in need to know is that help is coming," said Biden.

But what that survivor really needs to know is, when will it get to me?