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Hill AFB reservists return from Haiti

5 airmen return to Utah, tell of many touching experiences giving aid

SALT LAKE CITY — Tech. Sgt. Justin Adams has never been busier in his life.

For the past 38 days, the days felt like weeks and the weeks felt like days.

He would go to bed at night in Port-au-Prince dreading the coming day's toil.

The cycle of support airplanes flying patterns over the earthquake-ravaged capital of Haiti was relentless. The heat was constant. Mosquitos were more than abundant.

Then there was the Hotel Montana, where dozens of people were believed to be entombed by the Jan. 12 earthquake that is blamed for the deaths of 217,000 to 230,000 people. They'd see plenty of the hotel before they were through.

Adams and 14 of his fellow airmen from the Air Force Reserves had volunteered to take on any of the myriad challenges presented when a Third World nation is stricken with disaster.

And now five of them are home, arriving Friday night at the Salt Lake City International Airport. They're back to their lives, families, work and school, facing challenges that now might not seem as big as helping to put a nation back together.

The Hill Air Force Base reservists from the 419th Fighter Wing's 67th Aerial Port Squadron were assigned to the Toussaint Louverture International Airport as aerial porters, meaning they were charged with unloading international aid and cargo coming in and loading planes with refugees, evacuees and orphans going out.

In 38 days, they were part of the team that handled more than 2,000 aircraft, processed more than 12,000 tons of cargo and 15,000 passengers, including 7,000 evacuees and Haitian orphans.

That's an average of 52 planes, 315 tons of cargo and nearly 400 passengers per day.

And they did it without the conveniences of an intact airport.

Toussaint Louverture was destroyed in the earthquake, but its runway was in perfect condition. So tents and canopies were erected to serve as a terminal.

"It's not a romantic job," Adams said. "But people needed food and water."

And the food came, he said. Because one of Haiti's major seaports was damaged in the quake, the food came by air.

Thailand sent a 747 cargo plane full of rice. Cuba sent a charter jet with supplies and aid. In all, Adams jotted down 36 countries, including Russia, Nicaragua, Mexico, Panama and Libya, that sent aid.

"I feel we did some amazing good there," Adams said.

The airport has been returned to civilian control, while some servicemen are remaining there to train Haitians in security and other operations. American Airlines is resuming its flights to the country, Adams said.

Just five of the volunteer airmen who left for Haiti in January returned Friday. The rest will return in the next couple of weeks.

Senior Airman Rahman Badarane, who also returned Friday, said he experienced some of the most heartbreaking moments of his life when he helped orphans onto planes.

They cried when it was their turn to board because they craved to be held, Badarane said.

"It's so tough," he said. "It breaks your heart."

But there was comfort in knowing the children were on their way to a better life, he said.

The 12- to-14-hour days were grueling, but the airmen followed them with volunteer work at the Hotel Montana, working as spotters for the excavators, peering into the wreckage to spot the bodies of those buried inside.

"(The city) was like a giant had stomped on it," Badarane said. "Am I really seeing this?" he remembers wondering.

They worked to identify a scrap of clothing, a piece of jewelry, collecting it to help identify bodies pulled from the hotel.

And then, just as time has a way of escaping, the airmen are home. In fact, they're home about a week early.

And they look back already across the thousands of miles to Haiti as one of the most touching experiences of their lives. Countries came together. Servicemen, who have been known to have more than a few rivalries, came together, Adams said.

"It was for no reason but to help people," he said.

e-mail: jdougherty@desnews.com

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