The misery is in sight -- yet so far away. The hills of Haiti are etched against the Caribbean sunset, in picture postcard perfection. Two vessels pull out of the port at Port-au-Prince heading for the open sea.
Fishing boats? Or are they carrying refugees?
The aircraft carrier floats sedately five kilometers off Port-au-Prince. This floating fortress is the hub of Joint Task Force Haiti (JTFH), the largest mobilization of humanitarian aid that the US has ever undertaken. On land, people are still dying -- nine days after the massive earthquake that devastated Haiti last week. And here on board they are doing what they can to help prevent more deaths.
"We're here to help," says Navy Rear Admiral Ted Branch, the commander of the Haiti flotilla and the second highest ranking officer onboard. "We're not here to occupy."
Branch, who has already served his country in Bosnia, Iraq and Lebanon, doesn't agree with international criticism that has been leveled at his country's efforts in Haiti. "This is a classic example of international co-operation," he says. His voice breaks. "Sorry," he croaks. "Bad cold."
The US has brought a small armada here. The Vinson, the destroyer USS Higgins, the frigate USS Underwood, the cruiser USS Normandy, an amphibian unit led by the USS Bataan and staffed by 2,220 marine infantrymen, and the hospital ship USS Comfort, which has also finally arrived at Port-au-Prince. Most of these vessels can be seen from the deck of the Vinson. The Pentagon has ordered a total of 11,000 troops to Haiti, both at sea and on land.
"This is the biggest deployment we've had of this kind," says Lieutenant Colonel Jerome Morris -- a lot bigger than the aid effort after Hurricane Katrina which the Vinson also took part in. Still, for Morris it is a job like any other. "Of course you get frustrated," he says with a typical soldierly nonchalance. "It never ends. It's hot. But it's what we do."
With five of his colleagues, Morris sits in a cabin on the flight deck steering the onslaught of helicopters over the radio, as delicately as though it were a ballet and he a choreographer. On the massive steel door a sign reads: "Flight Deck Control." In front of Morris there is a scale map of the Vinson; He pushes small cardboard circles around on it. These symbolize the helicopters taking off and landing. A coffee machine emits bitter fumes, insect repellent sits nearby.
The Vinson is a mammoth ship: over 300 meters long (1,092 feet), 24 storeys high and 95,000 tons with 3,000 cabins. Endless corridors -- some of them dim, others brightly lit -- wind their way through the steel colossus, all connected by steep stairways and small doors. "I still get lost," says Steven Hale, a sailor who's been on the boat for seven months already.
Even more important are the Vinson's two nuclear powered engines. Deep in the ship's belly they allow the vessel to travel as fast as 30 knots. The Vinson was able to travel from Virginia to Haiti in less than three days.
For this particular mission, the Vinson has gone from being an aircraft carrier to a busy helicopter station. It was a change from business as usual for those on board and at the beginning, confusion reigned. By now, however, the system has become well oiled. "Things are progressing," Branch says. "Forces are beginning to flow."
Around 20 helicopters a day are dispatched from the Vinson, most of them CH-53 Sea Stallion heavy-lift transport helicopters. C-2 Greyhound planes, the pack horses of the mission, carry food, medication, spare parts and personnel from Guantanamo, the US base on the coast of Cuba, located about two flight hours away. In three days, the Vinson has also managed to produce about 22,000 liters of drinking water onboard before flying it into Haiti.
By now, Branch says, a good network of distribution points has been built up in the Haitian capital. Now, the mission will begin focusing on more remote areas, where little or no aid has reached. In order to prevent outbreaks of violence, however, aid will only be dropped on areas that have been previously secured by personnel on the ground. Branch describes it like any other mission for which the Vinson was built: landing behind enemy lines, establishing a maritime front, the patrolling of pirate infested seas.
From the ship the silhouette of the ravaged city looks unreal, as though it were a film set. But the disaster is felt at sea too. A helicopter carrying 18 people injured in the quake was forced to land on the Vinson due to bad weather. The patients will be stabilized here before being tranferred to the Comfort, the hospital ship which has 1,200 beds.
Headlines were also made by a two-year-old girl who underwent emergency surgery on board -- performed by by Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon who also happens to be US news channel CNN's chief medical correspondent. Spectacular cases to be sure -- but only a small part of the suffering on Haiti.
Some of the troops are laconic about the heroic role they are playing. "Twelve hours on, 12 hours off," says one sailor with tattooed arms. And when he's off duty? "Lift weights, phone home, read a little."
At the opposite end of the spectrum, there is Natosha Pejoue, a lively young woman sitting in front of a computer controlling the elevators that lift the planes onto the flight deck. "I think it's amazing we get to help here," she says.
This is the Vinson's first mission in five years. That is how long the mega-ship, which first went into service in 1982, has been in dry dock in Virginia. After 25 years, nuclear powered ships in the US Navy are completely overhauled and the old nuclear fuel is replaced with new. The Vinson had been relaunched a mere 12 hours before the urgent call came from Haiti. The trip back to its home port in San Diego quickly became a crisis mission.
Lieutenant Erik Schneider, normally responsible for evaluating reconnaissance photos, is pleased with the mission. "It's a nice change of pace, doing this kind of operation," he says. How long the change will last though, nobody yet knows. "At least a few months," Branch guesses. The ship was actually supposed to be back in San Diego by mid-April, after the trip around South America -- it is too large for the Panama Canal.
As darkness falls, the flights come to a stop for security reasons -- the deck grows quiet. The sailors gather in a gigantic hangar, lit by yellow floodlights, which stretches the length of the ship under the deck-top runway. They jog, do push ups and wrestle with one another. Somewhere in the distance you can hear music, laughter echoes throughout the steel cavity.
And out through the side door of the hangar one still has a view of the sea, waves that push steadily by, far below, under the Vinson's hull. On the horizon, Haiti's misery becomes but a shadow before sinking into the darkness.