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Airman humbled by return to Haiti

  • Published
  • By Maj. Michael Meridith
  • 18th Air Force Public Affairs
Maj. Donovan Davis, who helped to ensure the flow of humanitarian relief into Haiti in the wake of last year's devastating earthquake, was recently humbled by an invitation to return to the scene of what he considers a "defining moment in his career."

Less than a year ago, the former airfield operations chief of Joint Task Force-Port Opening (JTF-PO) at Toussaint L'Ouverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince departed the island after a successful six-week effort to restore normalcy to that nation's airport operations. On January 12 he returned as a guest of the Haitian government to attend a memorial service marking the first anniversary of the devastating earthquake, which took more than 300,000 lives.

"Despite the warm smiles from the Haitian flight attendants, I was very anxious during the two-hour flight, because I had no idea what to expect when I arrived back in Haiti," said Maj. Davis, who added that his last image of Haiti from 2010 was an endless stream of relief trucks outside the airport waiting to process through the JTF-PO distribution yard.

"There were also large crowds of Haitian citizens waiting at the airport checkpoints--some seeking medical attention and others looking for work opportunities. There was gridlock everywhere due to enormous crowds of desperate and frightened people seeking our help," he explained.

Nearly a year later, his first glimpse of Port-au-Prince came as a relief. "Everyone on the flight strained to see the airport through the windows of the Boeing 737 as we taxied into the jet bridge," he said. Major Davis' initial assessment was that at least airport services were operating normally and that the airport looked much better than when he had departed 10 months ago. Aside from a visibly damaged control tower atop of the passenger terminal, he said it was difficult to see signs that a massive 7.0 earthquake had struck this area.

Major Davis' destination was Port-au-Prince's 19th-century Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption. The Cathedral was only six miles from the airport; however it took him nearly 45 minutes to get there. The closer he came to the heart of the city, the more devastating the scenes became. Major Davis noticed many destroyed homes along hillsides as they travelled, and within the city he saw several buildings being leveled by excavation equipment. He said the sight of construction cranes on every block was a sobering reminder of the enormous rebuilding effort taking place. Despite the remnants of last year's tragedy, Major Davis noticed that the streets were cleared of rubble, vehicle traffic was moving (albeit slowly), and there were crowds everywhere gathered to pay tribute to lost loved ones.

Although the memorial was held on the steps of the destroyed Cathedral, Major Davis said there was a sense of optimism stemming from the reunion with people from Haiti, Canada, France, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Brazil whom he had worked alongside during the relief effort. He added that it was a chance to reflect on an event that he saw as significant to his life on many levels.

"The earthquake happened on my birthday and I believe being in Haiti during that particular period was no coincidence. Those unforgettable events formed a special bond for me and the people of Haiti," he said.

Currently an executive officer at Headquarters, 18th Air Force, Major Davis was a member of the 621st Contingency Response Wing based at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J. at the time of the quake. Joining forces with the Army's 688th Rapid Port Opening Element out of Fort Eustis, Va., the 125 Airmen and Soldiers formed the JTF-PO, which arrived in Haiti on Jan. 14, two days after the quake.

"We open ports to move personnel and cargo, especially humanitarian relief cargo. Whether it's a neighbor to our south or a country halfway around the globe; we're there when military leaders give us the green light. That really is the special part of the CRW mission--being able to help those in need. The United States is often the first country willing and able to reach out and help other countries through difficult times and all we ask for in return is their friendship. That's pretty cool," he said.

Within days of arrival, the Haitian government gave JTF-PO, and then-Capt. Davis, the go-ahead to take over airfield operations at the main airport, ensuring life-saving relief was able to rapidly and safely reach the stricken country. A little more than a month later, on Feb. 20, the JTF-PO left Haiti after the return of international commercial flights--bringing back a measure of stability to the country's air traffic control and airfield operations.

Despite his role in the JTF-PO's accomplishments, Major Davis said he was "just one of many Airmen" who provided a helping hand. He also said that while he is flattered by the praise the JTF-PO received, he hopes that their efforts were "the first steps on the road to eventual prosperity" for the struggling island nation" he said.

"They're an incredibly strong people who've endured centuries of hardship. It's difficult to describe what a mission like Haiti does to your outlook on life. I learned quite a bit about Haitian culture and also about myself. I'll return to Haiti again and plan to bring my family next time."

"When it's all said and done, if the Haiti relief mission is truly the defining moment of my military career--I'd be OK with that." he added.