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The Final Dispatch

Craig Paisley — Jan 27, 2010 at 3:01 pm

The highlight of my 22 year journalism career has just come to an end.

Just moments after the last crew members who had gone ashore were safely back on board last night, HMCS Athabaskan sped away from the coast of Haiti.

For the past week, the ship has been 'on station' about a kilometer off shore near the town of Leogane. It left only to re-supply its food and fuel stocks in Kingston Jamaica. That will take about 6 hours. Then it will be full steam ahead, about 24 knots, back to the Haitian coast to continue a job that may never end.

Jamaica is where I left the ship, and an assignment I have been extremely fortunate to experience.

The mission began January 14 when the ship and 276 crew members left Halifax in a flurry. It was just two days after the earthquake that devastated Haiti initiated a call to the world for help. The people posted to the Athabaskan and HMCS Halifax were among Canada's first responders.

The people serving on the Athabaskan were not sure what they would be doing, what they would see, how they would react or how they would feel. They were all warned it could be a life-altering experience. The toll -- physically and mentally -- could be extreme.

Crew members -- some on their very first mission, others who'd been deployed after Hurricane Katrina or the crash of Swiss Air flight 111 -- were eager to step up. The fact they only had a few hours to pack their bags, load the ship and say good bye to loved ones didn't change the fact they knew they had a job to do.

I was aboard the Athabascan for 13 days.

The CBC only allowed me to go in the first place, if I DID NOT LEAVE the ship. Haiti is considered a country of risk, and I didn't have the necessary hazard training. At first I was frustrated, even angry as I watched colleagues from another media outlet join the troops going ashore.

Time to improvise.

I had packed several mini 'Flip' cameras that I sent with the sailors. What they came back with every day were images and sounds that enabled us to tell the stories we have. It was raw and it was real. An honest accounting through their eyes. From amputations without any medication to numb the pain and suffering, to rebuilding basic shelters at an orphanage where the children now play in the rubble that was their home. It was an unorthodox way to construct a news story. I hope it worked, and showed people at home what these very dedicated people are doing.

I'll be honest. I made new friends aboard the ship I will undoubtedly stay in touch with when they do come home. It did not impact the journalism I was doing. They documented the stories. I just delivered them home. That was a daunting task in itself: gathering tape, editing and feeding the stories from a moving ship. It was only made possible by Les (thank you sir, so much, again).

Now on the winding mountainous road that takes us from Kingston to Montego Bay where we will catch a flight home, I feel sad but honoured. Sad to leave the 'mission'. Honoured to have met so many dedicated people, who will step on to the beach again tomorrow and continue to help in whatever way they can.

Stay safe. Stand proud.

As the saying goes on board the Athabaskan's loudspeakers, "That is all. We fight as one."

Battle Rhythm

Rob Gordon — Jan 21, 2010 at 2:24 pm

It’s called battle rhythm. And it’s the concept behind much of what is happening here with the Canadian navy in Haiti.

The military embraces unique terms like any profession does. Battle rhythm is the phrase of the trained warrior.

It’s near impossible to really understand inside jargon. Nuance can never really be translated. But I think I’m getting to know the little crawl spaces hiding deep inside battle rhythm.

It’s a drum.

Battle rhythm is a drumbeat. It allows the navy to best use its sailors, equipment and supplies to achieve the goal. And because it’s the military, the goal could be killing people or helping them.

Here in Haiti battle rhythm has squat to do with killing. God knows there’s already more then enough death around here. (And just as an aside, God doesn’t seem to be in Haiti lately. She is welcome to make an appearance anytime. Until then the Canadian navy will do its best to backfill.)

Ha! No lightning strike.

Now back to battle rhythm.

HMCS Athabaskan is the kettle drum. It’s from here that the steady, deep beat originates. Each morning Athabaskan’s captain chats with the crew over the ship’s public address system (sailors call it a pipe. I have no idea why).

He gives the crew the day’s game plan: how many sailors will be going ashore and how long they will stay. How 'Big Dog', the ship’s chopper, will be used.

It’s big picture stuff that trickles down to each sailor ashore and on ship. Everyone has a beat to keep. Every minute is weighed and calculated by the battle rhythm’s metronome.

It’s steady, sure-footed business.

There are things that could speed up the battle rhythm. Things the navy doesn’t have like a reliable supply ship or the on-again-off again Joint Support Ships.

The 41-year-old HMCS Preserver, the navy’s only east supply ship, could work wonders here. Its big belly full of food and medical aid, its shore launches and its extra hangar space would be welcome.

But it’s not to be.

Thirty-eight year old HMCS Athabaskan and teenager HMCS Halifax maybe aren’t the perfect ships for the job. But they’re here and that’s what matters.

Admiral J.R. Jellicoe goes down in naval lore as the man who sort-of beat the Germans in the Battle of Jutland in 1916. He once said given the choice between good men and good ships, he would always take good men.

Which brings us down to the final beat of the battle rhythm…the human heartbeat.

There are heaps of great big hearts on this ship. You can see them everyday as the sailors from the shore parties arrive back on Athabaskan. They're exhausted. But to a person, they're looking for way to make sure they will be on tomorrow’s always grueling, often grizzly and never easy mission to save Haitian lives.

What the hell was that!!

Craig Paisley — Jan 20, 2010 at 2:29 pm

The words rang outside inside my head, after I bolt up way too fast and my melon met metal.

I'm on the top bunk of three in a room deep down in the bowels of HMCS Athabaskan. Moments later those same words could be heard from some of the 15 others who share the space. We were all shaken awake. The huge destroyer that has been our home, and base of operations for a week now, was vibrating. It was no regular rumbling that occurs routinely on a ship. Had we run aground? Did we hit something? Did something hit us? A voice came over the intercom to tell us in fact, something had hit us.

We were warned to expect it. Now in waters about a kilometer off the coast of Haiti, a 6.1 'aftershock' is what rocked this boat.

The initial earthquake was a 7.1 on the scale in Leogane, near the epicenter of the earthquake. That's where the crew members from the Athabaskan are focusing their aid efforts.

The voice on the intercom confirms the tremors aboard were from that aftershock, 80 kilometers inland. Another, a much smaller shake happens as he is still speaking. No one on board is hurt, but some crew members wonder how long the random rumbling will last.

Then a word from the Captain. "Remember as you carry out your tasks today, the 'aftershock' could change the mood of the people on shore you will see again today."

Less than an hour after being shaken, I witness a team of extremely dedicated Canadians take the shake in stride.

First the armed landing party, then teams of 12 begin gearing up. All are anxious to get to shore to help in whatever way they can. They begin gearing up, and climb aboard the small inflatable boats that will taxi them back and forth between the ship and the beach. They have already witnessed horrible suffering, and we all wonder what another day will bring. But they are hungry to help and determined to make a difference.

I look at the images I see on the several small cameras I have given to crew members to document their day.

As devastated as the people of Haiti are, when the Canadian sailors set foot on the ground they are making a difference. There is no doubt. You can see it in the eyes of the locals, who run and gather on the beach. In a makeshift hospital, a young child looks up at a Canadian doctor who is treating her broken bones. "God Bless You" she repeats, over and over.

The are making a difference. You see it in the smiles of the suffering.

Coast of Haiti

Craig Paisley — Jan 18, 2010 at 1:35 pm

They will soon see the coast of Haiti.

Crew members on board HMCS Athabascan have been steaming straight south for almost 4 days now.

They've been practicing their skills. But most still don't know where they will take their first steps on land; the plan has been changing daily, sometimes hourly.

As commanders finalize a plan, crew members wonder how they will be accepted.

They are learning about the people of Haiti from a place they visit every day.

On the back of every washroom stall door, a piece of paper has appeared.

"A BRIEF INTRODUCTION TO HAITI" is the title. It tells of a long history of anarchy, government instability and chaos. It notes that even before the earthquake, Haiti's health care system was poor. Disease is common.

Most Haitians speak Creole, and French is spoken by those with schooling, but very few have ever attended schools.

Crew members are warned it is not appropriate to touch the heads of Haitians: it's considered an insult. This contingent of white sailors are told that because of their skin colour -- and because they are foreigners -- it will be assumed they have money.

"If going ashore it is advisable to remove all valuables (wallets, rings, watches), as they will most likely be snatched away in plain sight. It is not considered rude to decline any water or other beverages offered as very often they were made from unclean water."

After four days of hurry up and wait, the wait is almost over. They still don't know exactly where, or exactly when, but crew members of HMCS Athabaskan are growing anxious to do what they came here to do.

As one sailor tells me, "we will learn more in the first minute on the ground, than the countless briefings we have been given."

They've been told personal greetings are very important to Haitians -- handshakes or some type of physical contact.

They hope that's the case.

Right now they have to rely on what's posted on the door of the bathroom stall.

I love the navy

Rob Gordon — Jan 17, 2010 at 7:32 pm

I love the navy. Or perhaps its better to say I love the way the navy works when it works well.

Take the mission to Haiti. Last week Defence Minister Peter MacKay announced that Canada’s navy would send two ships to help with Haitian relief . (MacKay mistakenly said that HMCS Athanbaskan and HMCS Ville de Quebec would be dispatched; in fact, the navy sent Athabaskan and HMCS Halifax.)

The order? Go to Haiti.

It seems simple enough. But where? And do exactly what? And for how long?

All good questions and all unanswered when the dock lines were dropped in Halifax Harbour and the warships headed due south.

Think of it as a painting: A giant, blank canvass with not even a speck of paint on it.

Day by day, the sailors aboard the Athabaskan, the soldiers on the ground in Haiti and the mission planners in Ottawa are filling in that canvass.

A picture is starting to emerge.

Penciled in is a line drawing of southern Haiti. A big area for sure, but it’s just a hunk of Haiti, narrowed down considerably from “Go to Haiti.”

Now place a full-colour drawing of the Halifax and Athabaskan just off that southern coast.

The warships, it’s been decided, won’t tie up to a Haitian jetty just yet. Instead, they will hover out to sea off the south coast.

Ok, now sketch in the sun and make the painting full daylight.

It’s also been decided that the work parties of 60 to 64 sailors will leave the warships at the crack of dawn each day and return just before nightfall. It’s safer that way.

Now, let’s draw some fine detail on the canvass.

Ink an open Zodiac style fast boat. Put 16 sailors in that boat. Make one a junior officer and one senior Petty Officer. Place several sailors in black combat gear with large guns in the fast boat: they are naval boarding experts, there to protect the work party.

Add a 3000 watt generator, 14 shovels, a power chocolate bar for each sailor, the doctor-recommended amount of bottled water and a concrete saw or two.

Now, every good painting has a little bit wonder: A bit of inexplicable that makes art experts debate for years. (Is Mona smiling or sneering?)

The navy’s unfinished painting of Haiti is no different.

Of course, what is missing is the exact location of the painting: Southern Haiti yes, but what town or village?

Well, I know but I can’t tell you.

Part of the deal I made when I joined the Athabaskan is that I wouldn’t reveal stuff that had to do with operational plans until the navy was prepared to release them. Staying silent is no easy task for a yappy type like me, but a deal is a deal.

This canvass will be finished soon. It’s going to be a hopeful and horrific masterpiece.

Why does this unfinished painting make me love the navy?

The men and women of the Athabaskan have gone from “Go to Haiti” to figuring out how many snack bars will be the on landing craft inside five days.

Commander Peter Crain told his assembled sailors that “we are going to learn more about this in the first twenty minutes ashore then in a week of planning.”

That maybe true, Captain.

But I have to tell you that when it comes to filling that barren canvass you where handed a week ago, the Group of Seven has nothing on the Athabaskans.

Serious Business

Rob Gordon — Jan 16, 2010 at 12:50 pm

The crack of a Sig 9mm pistol lets you know that the mission is Haiti is well underway and it’s serious business.

The Naval Boarding Party spent the morning preparing to go ashore in Haiti. Going ashore in Haiti right now means having weapons ready to protect the sailors who will be there to clear roads, re-establish communications and sadly, recover dead bodies for burial.

HMCS Athabaskan is now just north of Haiti. The mission is becoming more clear and more muddy.

As the Combat Officer told us in briefing last night, the enemy is chaos. And chaos is one of the most difficult foes to fight.

The briefing provided the ship’s crew with a situation report.

It’s not pretty.

A shattered city, hundreds of thousands dead and a nation that is two days away from running out of water and fuel.

Exactly how and where the sailors the Canadian task group will help isn’t known yet.

There is an aid bottleneck in Haiti’s main harbour. A U.S. aircraft carrier, a Brazilian amphibious ship, a dozen destroyers and cost guard cutters have jammed the harbour.

And on the way is a huge hospital ship, the USS Comfort.

Still, some things have become clearer.

The Athabaskan and HMCS Halifax will stay at sea. Neither ship will physically tie-up to a Haitian wharf. The ships will remain just off the coast and send teams of sailors ashore by Zodiac. Each team will carry work parties armed with chain saws, concrete cutters and body bags.

And it’s going to be a daytime mission only. Just before sunset, the teams will return to the mother ships.

Its all beginning to sound like a plan.

There are some real vets here.

They are soldiers and sailors who reflect the Canadian Forces of today. Military police officer Mary Blois is one such vet. In her 24-year military career she has been ordered to many places that everyone else is trying to leave. She’s been to Haiti before and has a good idea what to expect.

“Expected the unexpected,” says Blois. “The people going ashore should know that they will see things that nothing can prepare them for. Nothing.”

Captain Ron Stecum, the ship’s medical officer, foreshadowed the future. The future is now just two days and a few hundred miles away.

“We have concerns about your physical well-being and your mental and emotional health,” he warned, as a group of sailors former a circle around him on Athabaskan’s helicopter deck.

At his feet were a green body bag, a shovel and a pick axe.

Groups of sailors nearby were getting detailed instruction on how to use chain saws and concrete saws. All necessary tools when dealing with a city in collapse.

Again, the crack of pistol fire is heard from the upper decks. The bullets splash into the sea.

HMCS Athabaskan steams that steady course due south, a course that will bring the warship into Haitian waters by Monday morning.

It’s the images

Rob Gordon — Jan 15, 2010 at 12:48 pm

It’s the images. They tell a tale of two worlds. One of the worlds is uniform, blue and the picture of first-world health. The other world can only be seen on jarring TV images: tattered, torn and the picture of developing-world disaster.

The first world belongs to the Canadian navy and the sailors aboard HMCS Athabaskan. Their uniform is blue, navy blue. Pressed shirts and orderly lives. Their country is one of privilege.

The other world belongs to the people of Haiti. Their uniform is red -- blood red. Ripped clothing and ripped lives. Their country is one of chaos.

As the Athabaskan steams at a steady 20+ knots due south, the 250 sailors aboard the destroyer know the two worlds will soon collide.

When they aren’t cleaning, stowing or steering, the sailors aboard Athabaskan watch all-news television.

Like many Canadians, what they see is the story of a people who have felt the back of Nature’s cruel hand.

But unlike most Canadians who yearn to help, but can only offer prayers and dollars, the sailors here know that in a few short days Haiti’s sorrow will become their own.

Just a few hours after Athabaskan slipped her lines at Halifax’s navy dockyard and headed out to sea, Commander Peter Crain addressed the crew over the ship’s loud speakers.

He thanked his crew for their swift effort to ready the warship for this mission in just one day. He apologized that some may not have been able to give loved ones enough notice. He assured them that the shore-based support system would help with any difficulties caused by the urgency of the mission.

He then spoke a plain truth.

“Exactly what we are going to do? I don’t know yet,” said Commander Crain. It’s true.

Yes, every sailor here knows the mission is to help Haiti, to help the Haitian people. But exactly HOW is a work in progress.

Loaded aboard Athabaskan are tools that hint at how help will be delivered.

Chain saws, concrete saws, sledge hammers and pick axes. These will be the new tools of men and women so skilled in the art of electronic counter measures, missile technology and underwater warfare.

Athabaskan’s sailors will become saviors with saws.

A few more hours into the voyage and the Athabaskan -- or Atha B as the crew calls it -- settles into a centuries-old routine. It’s the routine of a ship at sea. The same routine Lord Nelson and Joshua Slocum knew and lived by.

Sailors stand their watches, chat in the messes and crawl into their racks for a bit of sleep. The ship sways and rocks with the ocean’s swells.

But when the sun peaks over the watery edge of the Atlantic tomorrow, Atha B’s crew will know those two very different worlds are one day closer to colliding.

What a scramble!

Craig Paisley — Jan 14, 2010 at 2:35 pm

"What a scramble! What a rush!! It started with an email in the middle of the night from the boss. 'Is your passport up to date?', she wrote. There was little doubt about why she was asking, and no chance of sleep after that. My partner Sue said, 'you going?'.

I packed what clothes were clean and jammed them in my backpack. The packing continued when I arrived at work at CBC in Halifax. I quickly discover the equipment needed to send television stories from a ship is complex and cumbersome....far different than what's needed in my news gathering kit to capture stories day-to-day at home. I get a quick 'how to', on how to deal with electronic equipment I've never seen before. Now, just 12 hours later, I'm on board HMCS Athabascan. There is a massive effort by crew members to load supplies. There is no hint how long the mission may last. At 1432, we are on schedule to depart at 1500. Destination.....Haiti."