Commentary: If you ask me why I serve I'll answer you, 'Haiti'

Mar 4 2010 - 10:25am

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- I'm often asked why I choose to be in the Air Force.

Some people ask to start up a conversation, others to be polite, and some genuinely wonder what compels Airmen to swear to support and defend the Constitution, put themselves in harm's way and deploy far from home.

Most people who ask are looking for a one-word answer. They expect you'll simply say adventure or flying, travel, education or some other military benefit.

Usually, after about 20 seconds of explanation their eyes turn glossy as you struggle to capture the essence of what you do and why you do it, all without using military jargon.

I've been in Haiti since January and I know when I return, people will ask me, "What did you see there? Are we really helping?" The answer to these questions is really the same answer to the question, "Why are you in the Air Force?"

I've learned service has rewards greater than any paycheck, trip abroad or educational degree. In it exists opportunities to be where others cannot, to stand where others will not, and to do what people would do if only they could be where you are.

The rewards of serving aren't one-word answers; they're the tiny snapshots of humanity, dignity and kindness playing over and over in the minds of Airmen who've "been there."

These scenes of hope replay in my mind each night as I lie down to sleep in my tent:

Airmen download thousands of pounds of lifesaving food and water from aircraft that don't even shut off their engines. They're done in minutes and begin working on the next aircraft -- 24 hours a day -- so far more than 3,000 times.

I hug a Haitian man as he tells me, "Without you, I would be dead. Thank you, America." I see the man again a few days later and he greets me like we've known each other for years. All he asks is for me to take a picture with him, not for him to keep, but so I can take the picture home with me and tell others his story.

An Air Force nurse cries with a patient recovering in a clinic, not from pain, but because they would soon part. Later, the whole ward --- even patients with life-threatening injuries -- sings together while nurses dance for them.

People come together for the greater good. Airmen unload airplanes from Venezuela, China, Qatar, France, Brazil, Chile, Australia, Colombia, Nicaragua and dozens more. They salute every aircrew as they depart, no matter what flag is on the jet's tail.

I stare in wonder at owls flying across a full flight line at 1 a.m. A private jet pulls in, full of volunteers. They ask, "Where's the nearest hotel?" I point to a few tents and cots in the grass next to the tarmac.

They sleep outside and don't mind a bit.

I hold a baby born onboard a Navy hospital ship just after the earthquake. The mother lost one leg and incurred multiple other injuries after debris fell on her. Yet the baby is healthy, and all mom wants to talk about is how happy she is to be home again.

A family huddles under a tarp held up by sticks on a median between traffic lanes. They're cooking rice and beans from a huge sack marked "A gift from the people of the United States of America." They look up, smile and give us a big thumbs-up as we drive by.

I hear my family on the phone saying, "I'm proud of you."

I give a meal-ready-to-eat to someone who's never had one, and likely hasn't eaten all day.

When the first commercial flight arrives in Port-au-Prince, Haitian families reunite a month after the earthquake. Tears of joy stream down their faces as they embrace.

A group of Airmen get off a transport airplane carrying their bags after traveling for an entire day. They've got every right to rest, but just hours later, they're building tents, marshalling aircraft, mapping food distribution points and driving earthmovers, all 700 of them.

A nurse tells me about a Haitian baby boy born on board the USS Carl Vinson. The mother names him Vincent.

A woman stands atop the mountain of rubble that was once her home. She points out where she and her son were when the earthquake hit, then explains how a fallen door miraculously protected them from harm. There's a hole in the rocks, just big enough to crawl through, marking their exit from death.

The woman calls the escape, "God's hand."

When I return home and I'm asked why I serve, I'll struggle to communicate the sights and sounds of hope that come with the privilege of being an Airman. My storytelling will fall short of putting a person where I've been.

I won't be able to conjure up the sensory signals of mutual respect, trust and compassion that come from being there when you're most needed.

Why do I serve? The one-word answer: Haiti.

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