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Troops in Haiti Feel Forgotten Back Home

October 31, 1994|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — As word finally reached Camp Dragon of President Clinton's visit to U.S. forces in Kuwait last week, a wave of resentment swept Sunday through the former swamp and garbage dump that houses many of the 16,000 U.S. troops still in Haiti.

Against the backdrop of a military mission that senior U.S. officials confirmed may last longer than the Clinton Administration had hoped and promised, the news could not have come at a worse time for combat troops in Haiti, whose morale already appeared to be plummeting.

Typical of the reaction was Pfc. Dan DeCristo, who sat shirtless, sweating and scribbling a script for a comedy skit Sunday morning while some of his colleagues in the 22nd Infantry Regiment of the Army's 10th Mountain Division played in a volleyball tournament nearby.

"I just wish people back home would realize we're still down here. And here the President goes and tells those guys in Kuwait to go do their Christmas shopping?" DeCristo, a Rhode Island native, said with angry incredulity. "Look, I'm a big supporter of President Clinton. I'm always getting ripped for it from the guys. But I heard he said that, and I thought, geez!

"Here he can go halfway around the world for a big peace signing, but he can't go 90 miles off the coast of Miami to say, 'Thanks'? To me, it looked like we've been forgotten."

It looked that way to Chaplain Dewane Stone too. The veteran Army chaplain of the 52nd Engineering Combat Battalion from Ft. Carson, Colo., has borne the brunt of the troops' resentment. Dozens of soldiers, he said, came to him to complain.

" 'But chaplain,' they all said, 'we came here first, and the President goes and visits them and not us. How come he's going to let them go home first when we've been here longer?'

"That swept through the camp," Stone said. "The feeling is unanimous. These are the forgotten soldiers."

And most of them will not be home by Christmas.

The sagging morale among a highly successful intervention force that Clinton has praised from afar and cast as a personal foreign policy victory was occurring as senior U.S. officials confirmed Sunday that Haiti's plodding political process is likely to delay the U.S. withdrawal here. The intervention force, they said, is now likely to remain in Haiti beyond the Clinton Administration's worst-case target date of March.

The policy dilemma facing the Clinton Administration, the officials said, is grounded in what are now two conflicting promises. The Administration has vowed to withdraw from the mission by early next year and yet has promised to keep combat soldiers like those in the 10th Mountain Division in Haiti until after crucial parliamentary elections.

Haitian political leaders and U.S. analysts said that delays in Haiti's Parliament, driven in part by a popular desire to keep the U.S. forces here as long as possible, already have pushed elections scheduled for December into January or February at the earliest--and perhaps as late as March.

Compounding the problem is the slow pace of the United Nations, which must build a peacekeeping force and assume command of the mission to stabilize and restore Haitian democracy after the U.S. combat troops withdraw.

"You've got a lot of conflicting interests here," one senior U.S. official said. "We want to get out as fast as possible. The U.N. wants us to stay as long as possible. And the Haitian people want us to stay 50 years.

"Now you've got the Parliament dragging its feet, the U.N. totally unprepared and the risk of U.S. casualties increasing by the day," the official said.

To make matters worse, thousands of increasingly bored U.S. soldiers throughout the Haitian capital are convinced that their mission is over. Some are like Army Spec. Nigel Allen.

"I wanted to go home on Sept. 19, when we got here and they changed all the mission orders," said Allen, a veteran of the U.S. military intervention in Somalia, who stressed that his biggest fear is that the longer the U.S. contingent stays in Haiti, the greater are the chances for American casualties.

"Look at what happened in Somalia. We were the forgotten soldiers there too. For months, no one even knew we were there. Then 18 Americans died, and it got back in the news. Something had to happen before people realized we were there. I hate to think that has to happen here."

But most expressed the sentiment of Lt. Chris Leighow, commander of the 22nd Regiment's Battle Company, which includes DeCristo and Allen. For him, the biggest morale problem is that most of his troops believe that the need for America's combat role in Haiti ended after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide returned and the nation remained largely peaceful.

"They don't understand why, if Aristide is here and things are going smoothly, they're still here. They feel they should be back with the wives and kids," Leighow said. "But the biggest problem now is what they're asking us to do is not what we've been trained to do."

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