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U.S. military presence in Haiti down to a trickle

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Six Haitian children cling to Lt. Ben Stollerman's hands, sleeves and fatigue pants as the U.S. Navy engineer negotiates one of Haiti's biggest camps for earthquake refugees.

"I feel like the Pied Piper," he says, grinning as he takes a break from pointing out projects he's directed to help reduce flooding in a sea of makeshift shelters that 47,000 people call home.

Stollerman says he has tried to explain to the children — though he is not sure they grasp it — that he will not be around forever. Next week, he ships out.

From a high of 22,000 troops spearheaded by the now-departed 82nd Airborne two weeks after the devastating Jan. 12 quake, the U.S. military operation is now down to 1,300 troops.

As of June 1, the Louisiana National Guard will be in charge of a 500-person contingent, based in Gonaives, a flood-prone city north of the capital where 800 people died two years ago in three hurricanes and a tropical storm.

Other National Guard units will rotate in every two weeks from Nevada, Montana, Arizona, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, said Maj. Gen. Simeon Trombitas, who heads U.S. Army-South and is in command of Joint Task Force-Haiti for its last month.

But the thousands of troops of Operation Unified Response, who helped keep the peace, distribute food and provide an overall feeling of safety for quake-stricken Haitians, will be a thing of the past.

They will be missed at the old military airport, where Stollerman works.

"The Americans' leaving is kind of sad because they get things done," Marie Ange Joseph, a 36-year-old street vendor who lives in the airport camp, said as Navy engineers installed steel grates over open sewer holes nearby. "If things were left up to the Haitians, they wouldn't get done."

An eight-person Southern Command contingent will remain in the capital, Port-au-Prince, with a handful of Chinook and Blackhawk helicopters.

The Navy engineers, or Seabees, also will remain in Haiti, to protect those among the 1.3 million still crowded in tent camps who are at high risk from flash flooding.

"It's a transition, not a drawdown or a departure," Trombitas said.

The Guardsmen will build and repair schools and continue to train Haitian medical workers. Large-scale U.S. military medical attention ended March 19 when the USNS Comfort hospital ship departed.

The U.S. Agency for International Development and civilian relief agencies will be taking over most of the logistical and aid work American troops performed.

U.S. military presence in Haiti down to a trickle 05/08/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 8, 2010 8:44pm]

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