A sapper's tale of Haiti

Shelley Lipke, CFB Esquimalt Outlook. 8 Mar 10

Sapper (Private) Robert Brandt never imagined his first deployment would be to earthquake ravished Haiti.

Just two years into the military, the 34-year-old Victoria native would normally be training and working in his field as a combat engineer at 4 Engineer Support Regiment in Gagetown, New Brunswick; but these days his life and duties are far from normal. Arriving just six days after the earthquake hit, the past seven weeks in Haiti have been an exhilarating, humbling and rewarding mix of emotions and hard work.

"I volunteered to go to Haiti with the Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) as soon as I watched the disaster in Haiti on the news," recalls Sapper Brandt in a phone interview with Lookout. "I wanted to go, and it was exciting to think I might get out the door on my first mission as a combat engineer."

The next day his life took a dramatic spin when he learned that he would be deployed with the DART and he was flown to CFB Trenton to await a flight.

Sappers normally provide mobility and counter mobility support to friendly forces while denying the same to the enemy, but in this humanitarian mission he was needed to join the Reverse Osmosis Water Purification Unit (ROWPU) in Jacmel - a totally different role.

"I needed to be trained first to learn the ROWPU system," he said. "This training didn't qualify me on the system, but it gave me the basics needed to operate it," he said.

After five vigorous days of training at CFB Trenton learning the ins and outs of this complex purification system, he was selected to join four others on the ROWPU team providing much needed purified water to Haitians and Allied troops.

The team of five arrived Jan. 18 to the DART camp in Jacmel to join more than 200 Canadian Forces Personnel.

For Sapper Brandt touching down in this country overcome with poverty and unimaginable disaster was an experience itself.

"This place is devastated on every level. The people are poor and the work is non existent. This place is hurt badly and needs a lot of help. The sheer amount of poverty is the one thing that I will remember."

Once landed, the ROWPU began utilizing their newly honed skills. "We get the water from a subsidiary stream and feed our pump into the water to suck it in to the machine. It runs through a series of membranes and filters before we add Chlorine to kill bacteria. Then the medics run Chlorine and PH tests to make sure the water is clean. In two hours we fill 11,300 litres."

Each day water trucks arrive empty and leave full bound for different areas of Jacmel.

"We work with the Sri Lankan Army United Nations Force," says Sapper Brandt. "They bring down water trucks and we supply the DART camp, the airport in Jacmel and UNICEF with water. Then UNICEF and the United Nations supply it to the local population."

Although he doesn't come into constant contact with the Haitian locals, he's had interaction with some of them.

"We try to keep the PR between us very good. I don't get out of my camp very much, but the people that I have talked to are very happy we are here helping them clear the roads, and are providing them with water and medical facilities. Especially the children," he says.

Aside from water production, Sapper Brandt helps with security detail and unloads trucks that bring supplies into camp.

"Physically there is a lot of heavy lifting and constant moving of supplies, and mentally we just have to overcome the conditions and environment we are in. The teamwork and camaraderie can't be compared to anything. We live in tight quarters and we have to get along and work together and over look the shortfalls. With the people I'm working with right now it is very easy to do," he says.

Since the Haitian earthquake the ROWPU has purified more than 438,300 litres of water for Haitians. DART has also played a major role in rebuilding damaged buildings and bridges, and the medical team has attended to nearly 1,000 patients.

"The situation has definitely improved since I arrived," he says. "The roads are being cleared. The crews are out daily cleaning falling buildings, and medics have treated every ailment from broken bones to sick people. The people in Haiti need a lot of help after the quake - everything from building materials to advice on making structures more quake-resistant. And the people are sick regardless of the earthquake, which again reflects back to an unbelievable level of poverty. I think the lack of infrastructure and the amount of sick people will stick out most in my mind."

Sapper Brandt will be on this deployment until mid March.

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