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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Pfc. Jean-Louis Smith knows how to change frowns into smiles, even in a place where that's not easy.
A seemingly endless line of edgy, scowling faces awaited him at a distribution point near a tent city in Port-au-Prince, where the people were waiting for shelter tarps.
Smith, a Haitian-American soldier, flicked on a portable loudspeaker and reggae star Sean Paul's hit "Temperature" washed over the crowd, turning part of the queue into a virtual conga line of grins, tapping feet and nodding heads. A native of Port-au-Prince and a Creole speaker, Smith spoke to the crowd in Creole, making calming announcements and helping Haitians forget their misery with music — at least for a while.
"It feels real good to come here and do what I do," said Smith, 25, a cook with 525th Military Intelligence Brigade. "When we started, it was real bad, we had people pushing and passing out. But right now, we have taken control, and it's getting better."
More than a month after the Jan. 12 earthquake summoned the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, to Haiti, paratroopers with the 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment have learned that crowd control takes more finesse than force.
'The music, everybody like'
For their security mission, these paratroopers were employing not only Haitian-American soldiers such as Smith, but a strategy of easy-going attitudes and engagement.
Staff Sgt. Christopher Bartholme, 27, showed off his dance moves, strutting beside the line at the distribution point where Michael Jackson's "Thriller" poured from the speakers.
He had spotted a rooster crowing weeks earlier at one of the company's first distribution sites, and he mimicked it and cracked up the people waiting in line. Then he built up his repertoire, and now it includes the rooster call, his "Thriller" shuffle and singing along with Bob Marley.
"These are very happy people, they like to laugh and they like to have a good time, and we find that the more we laugh and joke around with them, they forget they're standing in line, they forget about pushing," Bartholme said. "It eases our mood, it eases their mood, it eases the tension between the people and helps keep them under control."
John Barozie, a 20-year-old waiting in line, seemed to agree.
"I'm sleeping in the camp, and when it rains, it's not fun, it's a bad life," Barozie said. "The music, everybody like, everybody dance. The Haitian people, you move your body and you have no problem."
Never did Bartholme, the leader of Alpha Company's 1st platoon and a veteran of multiple tours in Iraq, suspect that his ability to boogie would be mission-critical.
"But hey," he said. "Whatever works, use it."
"I think it's been a huge learning curve since we've been here," said Capt. Edward Kim of the 325th's Charlie Company. "When we first got here, it was basically a soldier wall of guys, shoulder to shoulder, trying to control the crowd. We've really minimized that now to visual intent, using vehicles or cones. People understand that, and you don't have to put a whole platoon out to control crowds. You can put four or five dudes."
Crowd control is one of the main missions of the 325th Infantry, or White Falcons, whose area of operations is Port-au-Prince's inner city, said Maj. Eric Flesch, unit operations officer. The 325th's section is the most populous and earthquake damaged swath of Haiti; it includes the National Palace, the University Hospital and the national stadium.
A month after the quake, the White Falcons said they have been scaling back as the Haitian government slowly steps up. They were still standing guard at distribution points, clearing rubble downtown and serving at a compound for Disaster Medical Assistance Teams from the U.S. while they waited for U.N. forces to take over some security duties.
"The more we work to complete these missions, the more we work ourselves out of a job where the [nongovernmental organizations] are doing it — or the Haitian government — the closer we are to going home," Flesch said. "That's a pretty good motivation for the guys out there."
'They all know him'
For Haitian-American soldiers who work with the 82nd Airborne, the motivation is to help their homeland.
Smith said his commanding officer granted him permission to deploy to Haiti. For several weeks, he has been part of a two-man psychological operations team, under Joint Task Force-Haiti, which augments the 82nd.
In Port-au-Prince, Smith sought out his father, whose auto parts shop collapsed. He was relieved to see his father alive, but witnessing Haiti's misery has been tough.
"I have seen stuff that has been kind of painful. It hurts to see people living the way they do," Smith said.
Because he is Haitian, Smith is adept at collecting information in crowds, said his partner on the psychological operations team, who identified himself only as Sgt. Anthony.
"There are usually some trouble-makers or gang members in the crowd, and he'll say, tell me who they are, and we'll pull them out," Smith's partner said. "They all know him; they know he's Haitian so they feel more comfortable telling him their problems, and they accept what he says, as a native."
The distribution points were scenes of chaos early on, according to soldiers and humanitarian aid workers, with crowds reportedly overrunning or hijacking aid trucks and rushing aid workers because the people thought food and supplies were limited and that distribution would be on a first-come, first-served basis.
These days, many nongovernmental organizations are using a ticket system to better organize aid distribution, said Jacques Montouroy of Catholic Relief Services.
On a recent morning, not far from the ruins of the national palace, paratroopers from Charlie and Delta companies were helping keep the peace at a distribution point for a nearby tent city.
The paratroopers first drove past a long line of people who had lined up in the wrong place. When the Humvees rolled by, the line turned into a fast-moving throng that followed the Humvees for several blocks before trying to form a line again.
As the troops stopped and situated themselves, people ran to jockey for a place in the new line.
Weapons slung over their backs, the troops formed a security "bubble" around the NGO workers and the queue. The outer perimeter of paratroopers and Humvees blocked vehicle traffic at intersections and allowed in only ticket holders. Paratroopers stood about a dozen feet from each other in three rows, each parallel to people lined up single-file.
Sgt. 1st Class Nicholas Rennon of the 6th Psychological Operations Battalion, attached to the 82nd, made announcements in Creole over a Humvee loudspeaker.
"Usually I tell them to stay calm. Sometimes people get a bit rowdy," said Rennon, who left Haiti at 19. "I tell them that we're here to help, that we'll do everything we can to help them. Just stay calm and cooperate with the NGOs and the soldiers."
They worked the queue person by person, ejecting those without tickets. Small crowds, almost of exclusively young men, formed at the perimeter, and people without tickets tried to argue their way in, to no avail.
Montouroy credited the 82nd's calm approach to keeping the peace. The American soldiers ensure that the elderly have a place in line, and they move pregnant women to the front, he said.
"It's not strength first, think later. It's think first, strength if there's nothing else you can do, which is how it should be," Montouroy said. "People respect them, and there's no fighting, nothing. They joke, but they know where to stop. With a crowd, you can't be too chummy."
The brigade combat team has developed such techniques during evening forums for commanders and by reading papers from the Center for Army Lessons Learned, said Kim, whose Charlie Company was guarding the Catholic Relief Services distribution site.
"In general, there's a mutual feeling that we're here to help, and they respect that," Kim said. "We don't have to be as hostile, or come in here with a very, very aggressive posture, because as an infantryman, that's probably your natural posture. But ... we come in here, our weapons are slung behind our backs."
The ticketing system has its problems. Haitians have been complaining that tickets are being sold and that their distribution is mired in camp politics, according to Creole-speaking soldiers.
"They want the U.S. soldiers to give out the tickets, but we can't do that" because the NGOs are responsible for that, Rennon said.
Montouroy conceded that the ticketing system is not perfect.
"We go to a camp and we have to get a list from the camp leaders, and we have to trust them, and we know that they're not all trustworthy," Montouroy said. "It involves politics and games. They will put friends on there and they won't put somebody they don't like on the list, so it gets very difficult. But that's the best we've got."