Brian Williams, anchor and managing editor
We see some awful things in our line of work. And then we come home to our comfortable lives in America. As long as I live, I don't think I'll ever be able to square the two lives we lead. After all the suffering we witnessed, I arrived home with no way to explain it, no desire to go into detail, and no explanation for why some children are born into poverty and struggle only to die young and in great pain—while my children lead such fortunate lives. I've come home from multiple trips to Iraq, Afghanistan, Indonesia, New Orleans and now Haiti asking the same thing. I stood in line this afternoon at the supermarket and listened to two insanely entitled teenagers—wearing the logo clothing of a prominent New England prep school—complaining about obscene topics like how "tight" their mother was with her credit card, and how taxing the task of shopping had been for them. It took everything I had to remain silent and not remind them that people are suffering. I am hoping they have parents for that—maybe they are the ones who should be reminded. But it was something my wife said last night that focused and brightened my thinking somewhat: "What if there were no United States? Have we stopped to think how much worse off the Haitian people would be?" She's right, as she so often is.
There were several things we should have pointed out, as part of our coverage while in Haiti, but could not or did not because of the crush of air time or just plain weariness. We should have listed the aircraft we saw arrive from various countries, including the prop plane from Cuba, the two giant 777s from El Al in Israel, the incredible Belgians and their crack rescue squad, the Russians, the seemingly unending stream of rescue workers from New York, California and Virginia—I happily noted their exploits were highlighted during our weekend coverage.
We flew home this weekend on a U.S. Air Force C-17—which we later learned was part of the "shake-down" portion of what will become an air bridge of evacuees from Haiti who will now become temporary residents of McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey. On our flight, there were empty seats (an important point—while the Air Force was the only way we could fly home from Haiti, we would of course have been bumped, happily, from any flight full of evacuees, and this flight was not full, thus we were allowed passage...this will be, for days to come, the only way media will be able to fly out of Haiti) and about 10 members of the media alongside approximately 100-150 Haitian evacuees. They were all tired, scared, sad, thankful, unfailingly polite and peaceful. Those with children seemed totally devoted to their cargo, and not one of the children fussed during our 10-hour journey. In just the first two days, over 400 more Haitians have joined them, in the very nice temporary housing set aside for such purposes at McGuire.
I must confess to intervening in military affairs on the flight home. It struck me that our current wartime military has now been thrust into a giant and urgent humanitarian mission, and that was not fully reflected on this first evacuee flight. The professional and businesslike Air Force crew on board made all the appropriate announcements, and showed their usual courtesy to their passengers, but it was clear they were used to transporting pallets of water and Humvees and generators...and not people, some of whom were enduring the darkest chapter of their lives. They boarded this cargo jet not knowing where they were going. Many were wearing minimal clothing, and they were headed north to the dead of winter. I suggested to the media liaison on board that the Crew Chief of the flight find a volunteer to make a few announcements in Creole. It was apparent to me that our guests were not paying attention to the announcements (those about safety, meager amenities, and updates on the flight, including such term-of-art phrases as "taking on fuel" and "off-loading passengers") and were missing out on vital information. In what I hope becomes an act of Air Force policy, we witnessed an amazing change: the passengers who had been asleep or disinterested during the announcements suddenly came to attention when they heard their native tongue being spoken to them, with great courtesy from a young father of a beautiful little girl on board. He was thrust into the "announcer" role and did superbly well. I was also concerned upon landing that the Haitian visitors were subjected to almost punitive-feeling searches once on the base—bomb-sniffing dogs and metal detectors...the standard operating procedure when non-military passengers arrive, but suddenly slightly tone-deaf in terms of what these Haitians had been through. It will simply require some sensitivity on the part of our young airborne warriors—our armed forces volunteers, who have been fighting this nation's dual wars for years now, non-stop. There was no food available on the 10-hour journey—and while there was water, it was never handed out—it was made available in the front of the aircraft, only for those who understood the announcement in English. It was immediately apparent that many of the passengers did not realize there was water...or a bathroom available on board...until it was time to leave, when they walked by both on their way out. To be fair: the care and comfort of human passengers on a cavernous cargo jet has not been a priority of the Air Force lately, but now it is.
It was because of my familiarity with the military—on so many levels—that I spoke up. They are nothing if not resilient. They can adapt on a dime. And while basic military training is centered on a notion of an adversary, these passengers, as I made clear to the cargo crew, had done nothing wrong. The matter I raised on the aircraft was just one of tone. Big picture: every member of the military was working hard. Moving fast. Sweat dripping off their chins as they unloaded food and water and vehicles from huge incoming aircraft. Then there were the tents to house the 82nd Airborne—and the electronics that needed to be set up. They realize time is everything, and they are moving as if lives depend on it. They do indeed.
Haiti needs so much right now. They need doctors, they have a dire need of heavy equipment. As so many public officials have said, they need our money. It is the best way to help, I'm convinced. This is not fair. Nothing about this tragedy is fair. No one in Haiti deserved this. We have to hope that this relief effort—when it becomes all about recovery—will also focus on reconstruction. While we cannot return a dead child to the hands of her mother, the world community has the chance to leave behind a better country. There IS no Haiti right now, as we have come to know it. I saw four police officers in three days, and one uniformed Haitian soldier. We are now Haiti—not just we Americans, but those of us in all the countries in the region, and all the countries that have responded so quickly and generously. We cannot reverse what has happened there, but we can try to restore a country.
We reluctantly left members of our crew behind—they had volunteered to stay on—and welcomed the new arrivals before leaving ourselves. We'll be back. For now, we get to take a bigger-picture look at the struggle, which we will start tonight. It's good to be back home, though in my head I'm still very much back on that tarmac in Haiti.