US soldier returns to Haiti to help, finds family

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Junior Florestal left Haiti when he was 13 for a better life in the United States. He long promised to return, but it took an earthquake to bring him back.

“I’d always wanted to come,” the 33-year-old U.S. Army staff sergeant said Sunday. “But I didn’t want to come in this way.”

Florestal is one of at least three Haitian-American paratroopers in the 82nd Airborne Division helping get sorely needed food, water and supplies to survivors of the magnitude-7.0 earthquake that shattered this capital city last Tuesday. His unit learned it would leave the following day, giving Florestal hope he could both bring aid and track down dozens of relatives living in Port-au-Prince and in villages surrounding the capital.

“I was ready to go that day,” he said. “When I was watching it on TV in the States, I couldn’t wait to get back here and help out.”

Florestal joined the Army in 1996 and has served twice in Iraq and once in Afghanistan. Trained to be a cook, he’s fluent in Creole. Since arriving Saturday has been translating for officers who coordinate relief efforts from the division’s base on a hillside golf course.

“It helps to have someone with a similar background,” said Capt. John Hartsock, who has been overseeing food distribution with the Fort Bragg, North Carolina-based division.

Quake survivors implore the soldiers in halting English for more food and water and for medical help. Florestal responds in Creole — and surprised Haitians waiting in lines slap him on the back and shake his hand.

“They feel good that there are Haitians in the U.S. Army,” he said.

When Florestal hasn’t been working as an interpreter, he’s been asking quake victims if they have any information about his family. On Saturday, he walked up and down a makeshift barricade, questioning those waiting in line for food.

Amazingly, he found one of his cousins, who told him most of his family survived.

Later, he called his mother, who had been crying and still unable to reach any relatives in Haiti from her Orlando, Florida, home. She was overjoyed to hear that her sister and brother were alive, he said.

Florestal remembers a pleasant childhood in Haiti, growing up near a beach. Two decades later, he’s returned to a place that’s tough to recognize.

On Saturday afternoon, Florestal went with a group of paratroopers to another part of the golf course to walk through a tent city of 50,000 people that had formed since the quake. Survivors sat in the shade of trees and under makeshift tarps.

In one thicket near a fairway, the Haitians set up a hospital. Children lay on ratty mattresses, bandages on their heads stained with blood. Nearby, a woman had an exposed wound the size of frying pan on her back.

In the neighborhood next to the golf course, the school collapsed, leaving nothing but a pile of cinderblocks. Power lines dip down in the middle of the street. A lamp pole blocked a road.

Florestal said serving in Haiti has become a personal mission.

“I just want to help everybody, family or not,” he said. “These are my people. This is my nation.”