PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The biggest U.S. military surge since Iraq and Afghanistan is scaling back a month after the troops arrived in haste to aid victims of Haiti's catastrophic quake.
Great gray ships have been leaving behind Haiti's battered shores as thousands of American troops pack up their tents. The mission, however, is far from over.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the U.S. will be in Haiti for the long haul, although troop strength is down to 13,000 from a Feb. 1 peak of 20,000. Those who remain will accompany Haitians in an arduous struggle toward recovery.
Within a broad international relief effort, U.S. forces have provided some of the most visible support to a nation whose government and infrastructure were nearly wiped out in less than a minute on Jan. 12.
They have shored up the capital's quake-damaged port to operate at several times its pre-quake tonnage, while acting as a security and logistics mainstay for U.N. food distributions. Military choppers have delivered life-sustaining relief to isolated villages.
The flow of injured quake victims to the USNS Comfort hospital ship has eased, but the need for medical facilities remains overwhelming in Port-au-Prince.
"We're pretty saturated. This is the chokepoint," said Air Force Maj. John Mansuy of St. Clairsville, Ohio, the operating room nurse in a tented, full-service unit with zipper doors and a positive air flow to keep out choking dust that blankets a landfill in the teeming Cite Soleil slum.
His medical team takes in people strapped to stretchers — with fractures, open wounds and other life-threatening maladies — before rushing them offshore to the Comfort.
The Haiti aid operation, costing the Pentagon $234 million and counting, has added a new strain to an already overtaxed military. About seven in 10 members of the Cite-Soleil's modern-day MASH unit are veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — and many are scheduled to return there.
U.S. Southern Command chief Gen. Douglas Fraser would not specify during a weekend visit what U.S. troop levels would be in the coming months.
"Remember that the capability and the capacity the United States military brought in was for immediate relief," he told reporters.
The U.S. military already is turning certain tasks back over to the Haitians, such as daytime air-traffic control at Port-au-Prince's damaged international airport, where commercial flights are expected to resume by Friday.
The Haitians have generally greeted the Americans with warmth and appreciation, despite language barriers in the Creole- and French-speaking Caribbean nation.
One day at the gates of the collapsed Hotel Montana, a group of Haitian children greeted soldiers with the 82nd Airborne with a rendition of Michael Jackson's moonwalk. The soldiers replied with a moonwalk of their own. "Hey, you're good!" one of the kids shouted.
"No one is scared of them. They aren't aggressive; they wave hello. They have a peaceful attitude," said Jacques Michilet, 31, who lost his home and is raising two daughters in roadside shack.
Like many impoverished Haitians, Michilet doesn't just want the soldiers to stay: He wants his country annexed by the United States.
The U.S. military has not always been so welcome in its long history of military involvement in Haiti.
A Marine-led occupation from 1915 to 1934 is widely seen as a high water mark of U.S. intervention. Troops returned repeatedly, paving the way in 1994 for President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's return to power — and then quelling widespread violence in 2004 after Aristide flew into exile aboard a U.S. plane.
Some now regard as heavy-handed the emphasis on security after the earthquake, even though the tremor emptied the Port-au-Prince jail.
Patrick Elie, a former Haitian defense minister tasked by President Rene Preval with heading a commission on restructuring the country's dismantled security forces, said the troops were helpful but were initially overly focused on security.
"The foreign countries that came to our aid fell victim to their own propaganda," Elie said. "They were afraid of a monster that never existed except in their own fantasies ... that Haitians are bloodthirsty savages."
After the disaster, there were isolated street fights and killings of looters by security guards, and some gang violence in slums driven by leaders who escaped from prison. But the capital has been largely calm and orderly as Haitians organize themselves from the ground up.
On Sunday, volunteers with whistles directed traffic around fallen buildings and rubble in the hard-hit Bel Air slum. Uniformed scouts routed cars around singing church parades — a toned-down substitute for this year's missed Carnival season.
Still, U.S. military analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute said the security precautions were warranted.
"Desperate people do desperate things," he said. "It would be dangerous and probably counterproductive to put U.S. civilians on the ground there without military forces to ensure order."
A 9,000-strong Brazilian-led U.N. peacekeeping force has been in place since 2004 to help Haiti contain gang violence and maintain basic order.
Earlier this month, Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive defended the size of the American military presence when confronted by wary Haitian senators. He said the government's acceptance of the U.S. military force boiled down to "a reality of capacity, of power, of proximity, of logistics."
Half of the 13,000 current U.S. troops in Haiti are on the ground, with the others offshore on hospital boats or handling deliveries and logistics.
Many Haitians said they are most grateful for the U.S. troops providing security during food distributions, a life-and-death matter for most of the 1.2 million made homeless by the quake. The U.S. said it has helped deliver food to 160,000 people a day, but meals remain scarce and food has been diverted or stolen because of inadequate protection.
Far smaller contingents of Canadian, French, Italian, South Korean and Japanese troops are also in Haiti, and European Union engineering units are expected in coming weeks to help build temporary shelters.
But the American contingent is the one that Haitians worry about losing in their greatest time of need. Told that some U.S. troops are leaving, 29-year-old rooster trainer Watson Geranson grew worried.
"Haiti needs help, we had a catastrophe," he said as a U.S. Humvee rumbled by a new shantytown of quake refugees, where signs were posted pleading for food. "I don't see why they should go."