- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 19, 2010

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti | Junior Florestal left Haiti when he was 13 for a better life in the United States. He long promised to return, but it took an earthquake to bring him back.

“I’d always wanted to come,” the 33-year-old U.S. Army staff sergeant said Sunday. “But I didn’t want to come in this way.”

Sgt. Florestal is one of at least three Haitian-American paratroopers in the 82nd Airborne Division helping get sorely needed food, water and supplies to survivors of the magnitude-7.0 earthquake that shattered this capital city on Jan. 12. His unit learned it would leave the following day, giving Sgt. Florestal hope he could both bring aid and track down dozens of relatives living in Port-au-Prince and in villages surrounding the capital.

“I was ready to go that day,” he said. “When I was watching it on TV in the States, I couldn’t wait to get back here and help out.”

RELATED STORIES:
U.S. troops land at Haiti presidential palace
200,000 feared dead in quake
Quake tests Haitians’ faith
Soldier wants to help Haiti
Mourning-Wade fund raises over $800K for Haiti

Sgt. Florestal joined the Army in 1996 and has served twice in Iraq and once in Afghanistan. Trained to be a cook, he’s fluent in Creole. Since arriving Saturday he has been translating for officers who coordinate relief efforts from the division’s base on a hillside golf course.

“It helps to have someone with a similar background,” said Capt. John Hartsock, who has been overseeing food distribution with the Fort Bragg, N.C.-based division.

Quake survivors implore the soldiers in halting English for more food and water and for medical help. Sgt. Florestal responds in Creole — and surprised Haitians waiting in lines slap him on the back and shake his hand.

“They feel good that there are Haitians in the U.S. Army,” he said.

When Sgt. Florestal hasn’t been working as an interpreter, he’s been asking quake victims if they have any information about his family. On Saturday, he walked up and down a makeshift barricade, questioning those waiting in line for food.

Amazingly, he found one of his cousins, who told him most of his family survived.

Later, he called his mother, who had been crying and still unable to reach any relatives in Haiti from her Orlando, Fla., home. She was overjoyed to hear that her sister and brother were alive, he said.

Sgt. Florestal remembers a pleasant childhood in Haiti, growing up near a beach. Two decades later, he’s returned to a place that’s tough to recognize.

Sgt. Florestal said serving in Haiti has become a personal mission.

“I just want to help everybody, family or not,” he said. “These are my people. This is my nation.”