Dispatches from Haiti: Soldiers and Civilians

This is a continuing series on the devastation and reconstruction of Haiti. As the story fades from the front pages of newspapers and ...

This is a continuing series on the devastation and reconstruction of Haiti. As the story fades from the front pages of newspapers and trending topics on Twitter, we will endeavor to provide a continuing look at what is happening on the ground.

It was an unusual team effort, one where two culturally opposite groups buried their differences and pulled together through the white heat of the catastrophe that befell Haiti last January 12-and saved countless lives in the process.

For more than six weeks after the earthquake struck, one group-uniformed, armed soldiers from the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division-protected and assisted the second-humanitarian aid group volunteer doctors and nurses tending the injured, the sick, and the dying at the country's biggest hospital in downtown Port-au-Prince.

The military and the humanitarian aid communities are a renowned oil and water mix-a clash of cultures where mutual understanding and respect for each others' mission are all too often in short supply. When events do throw them together, the result is usually an uneasy partnership.

Not this time. In Haiti, oil and water mixed.

So it was understandable that when the soldiers of the 82nd handed back the University Hospital's security responsibilities to local authorities late last month and withdrew to a nearby base, there was a sense of loss on both sides.

"We couldn't have achieved what we did without them," summed up Dr. Neil Joyce, International Medical Corps medical director during those initial hectic weeks.

Lt. Col. Paul Schillaci, a physician's assistant and one of a team of 32 U.S. Army medics that continues to support the hospital following the security handover, said those on his team vied with each other daily to get hospital duty.

"For us, it's been a universally positive experience," he said. The cooperation came easily, according to members of both groups..

In the confusion and desperation that characterized those early post-quake days, emergency medical teams, including those working with International Medical Corps at the University Hospital, breathed a visible sigh of relief when the 82nd Airborne first showed up. With little fan-fare and a soft hand, the soldiers established order. They calmed the anxious and unruly crowds of loved ones and passersby that milled around the hospital's main gate. They organized access to the hospital grounds.

"The soldier's presence was an altogether positive development for the medical teams," according to a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine signed by nine medical professionals who were among the first to arrive at the hospital after the quake. "By maintaining order and limiting the crowds of onlookers, they gave us more ready access to our patients."

Army medics also pitched in to evaluate and treat patients, supporting the humanitarian aid groups' volunteer doctors and nurses on the brink of exhaustion as much with their energy and positive attitude as with their deeds. Military medics hauled stretchers and supplies and helped transfer many of the most seriously injured patients to other facilities, including the U.S. Navy hospital ship, Comfort, anchored just offshore.

Doctors say those transfers alone saved many lives.

The 24-hour security the soldiers provided at the hospital also saved more lives because it allowed humanitarian groups to maintain medical care for their patients through the night rather than having to pull volunteers out at dark for safety reasons. Although Port au Prince is far calmer today, representatives of some humanitarian groups were visibly nervous about keeping a night shift of volunteer doctors and nurses going at the hospital without the Army's security protection.

While American soldiers no longer provide security for the hospital, the Army continues to transfer patients in urgent need of additional care to better-equipped facilities nearby. One morning earlier this month, as Army medics waited outside the University Hospital's emergency room tent to take a critical ill child on a six to seven mile journey to a hospital operated by the University of Miami at the Port-au-Prince airport, Schillaci tried to explain why the military and humanitarian communities managed to cooperate with relative ease in Haiti.

"People who do [humanitarian assistance] work are usually those who don't hold the military in high regard, but the scale of this disaster was so great that everyone who came here, came to help in any way they good," he said. "That broke down a lot of barriers."

Photo of International Medical Corps volunteer Dr. Robert Fuller conferring with a member of the military at University hospital in Port-au-Prince.Communications Officer Tyler Marshall is with International Medical Corps's Emergency Response teams in Haiti and reporting for GOOD on his experiences and the people he meets along the way.