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#Eleven11 – Bags on finding purpose and a way to help in Haiti

This Remembrance Day we are running a campaign called Eleven11 and encouraging people to join our critical Team Rubicon Support Squad. Through a monthly donation of £11 or more, you can make a massive impact at Team Rubicon.  The beauty of Team Rubicon is our dual mission, where your money makes double the difference – by positively impacting both the communities affected by disasters who we assist, and the veterans who serve them.  During November we are bringing you a series of 11 blogs which will show the difference Team Rubicon makes and, hopefully, inspire you to join our Support Squad.

Meet Bags who deployed to Haiti on Operation Trogon, our mission to assist communities in Haiti affected by Hurricane Matthew.

Op TROGON was the name given to the disaster relief operation launched by Team Rubicon to assist with the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew. It is now over a month since the first wave of Team Rubicon Greyshirts flew out from Heathrow to meet the recce team in Haiti. The second wave have been back in the UK for over a week and Op TROGON has come to a close, and so it would seem like an appropriate time to reflect on what the deployment has meant to the volunteers like myself.

For me it started and ended with a case of raw emotion, the likes of which I haven’t felt in a long time. When I first applied to TR back in the summer, I did it because of similar reasons to why I joined the army. It was a desire to serve some higher purpose, to help those in need and to work alongside similar people who just wanted to get stuff done. When I volunteered for the operation, I didn’t expect to be chosen. Along the way I had met some serious individuals who were keen to get involved and much better qualified. All I had to offer was a pair of hands and a relatively clear diary. It was after I had got the phone call, and as I started the long drive back home to begin packing, that the first wave of emotion hit me like a sledge hammer. I felt a mixture of excitement and trepidation combined with an overwhelming sense of gratitude about being allowed to go. I didn’t know what to expect when we hit the ground, but I was incredibly honoured to be chosen to help. The next few days as we prepared to fly out, were a blur of admin and packing.

When we got to Haiti and stepped off the plane, our small but plucky band of eight ex-servicemen were immediately thrown into the middle of what seemed like the end of the world. Tired and hungry locals jostled and argued in a language we didn’t understand for the right to carry our baggage. There was chaos outside the airport as four lanes of traffic tried to move through a space only designed for two. The heat, noise and smells instantly transported me back to Afghanistan. Looking around at the other members of the team, it was clear I wasn’t the only one who had suddenly become hyper alert and aware of our surroundings, despite the 24hrs of travelling. It took another few days for my nerves to calm and for me to realise that this level of hustle and bustle was entirely normal for Friday night in Haiti! All the threats I had been looking out for were entirely imaginary. Looking back on it now I feel quite sheepish in how quickly my brain slipped into its old ways.

Fallen trees in Haiti
Fallen trees littered many areas of Haiti affected by Hurricane Matthew, damaging dwellings and blocking roads

The next day as we travelled by vehicle to the west of the island and as we got further away from the capital of Port-au-Prince, the devastation from the hurricane became more apparent. There were fallen trees everywhere. Some in the roads, some blocking streams, others having torn houses in two. The poverty was extreme and people greeted us with stares of suspicion. It was easy to understand why. We were there to help, but what difference could nine people (we had been joined by our very own chainsaw weilding Canadian by that point) really make? It wasn’t just the hurricane. It wasn’t even the earthquake of 2010. What we were seeing was as a result of decades of political instability and a lack of decent infrastructure, despite the many millions of dollars and man hours of aid that had been poured into the island. Those first few days were extremely tough, as we struggled to find a sense of purpose in a place that seemed to need so much more help than we could possibly provide.

This all changed when we were introduced to the tiny community of Morency. At the end of a rocky track that was nearly impassable to vehicles, amongst the palm trees was a village of cinder block houses with corrugated iron roofs, perched on the very edge of what was once an idyllic beach. The hurricane had ripped through, uprooting a large proportion of the trees and destroying buildings as it moved inland. One of the worst affected buildings was the school which had been mostly flattened. In a country where an education could be the difference between a job and a life in squalor, suddenly we had found our purpose. Here was a group of people that really needed our help, and that we might be able to do something tangible for.

Bags and team at work in Morency, clearing debris and rebuilding the school
Bags and team at work in Morency, clearing debris and rebuilding the school

Quickly setting to work, we started chainsawing trees into managable sections to clear the roads and knocking down what was left of the old school. It seemed like a daunting task that we were unlikely to finish in our short time there, but before long something amazing started to happen. The locals immediately began to help out. Our arrival had given them a ray hope and galvanised them into action and our band of workers quickly quadrupled in size. The children would sit and play in the shade as the adults grabbed tools and got stuck in. Within no time, the building shot up and it was looking like we could complete it, but then the rains started.

Greyshirts and locals worked alongside each other on school rebuilding
Greyshirts and locals worked alongside each other on school rebuilding

36 hours of torrential rain and a wasted day later, we arrived at the track junction leading to Morency, only to find that the track had gone. In its place was a river that had carved over a metre of earth and rubble out of the hillside. We dismounted our vehicles and began to trek over the hills to reach the stricken village. The locals were delighted to see us as they assumed with the road gone we wouldn’t be returning. Work continued at a renewed pace, but now supplies and personnel had to come in by boat. To most this was a more welcome and smoother commute than the old track, but it transpired that one member of the group hated boats! Despite his fears, he gritted his teeth and endeavoured his own personal nightmare for the good of Morency. The second wave of Team Rubicon volunteers arrived in country as we were adding the windows and doors and we were proudly able to hand over a complete building ready for painting.

It was only as we packed up our tools for the last time and started to say our goodbyes to the villagers that the emotions started to kick in again. One of the little girls said to me, “see you tomorrow” which very nearly had me in tears as I had to explain we were leaving. She stood on the beach and waved at us until we must have been a tiny spec on the horizon. The boat was silent the whole way back except for the occasional sniffle as a group of hardened ex-servicemen avoided each other’s gaze as they wrestled with the importance of what had been achieved. Without doubt, the operation affected the lives of everyone who deployed for the better. We came back with our heads a little higher and our hearts a little fuller, having done a small amount of good in the world. For most it seemed like the start of something new, and before long some of the group were back volunteering with Team Rubicon again.

Greyshirts worked closely with the community in Morency
Greyshirts worked closely with the community in Morency

I feel honoured to have deployed alongside such a fantastic bunch of people, and I hope our paths cross again before too long. I would like to thank all of those that supported the operation back home in the UK and Hope for Haiti our partners who looked after us every day and guided us towards the people of Morency.

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Find out more about Eleven11 and how you can join our Support Squad.

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