HAMPTON -- The residents of a small village in Haiti, battered by Hurricane Matthew, swarmed into a Chinook helicopter loaded with supplies -- and soldiers.
"They were coming hard," said Spc. Christopher Harper of Fort Eustis. "One guy was trying to carry two 110-pound bags of rice over his shoulders. He did it, too. I was like, wow. It's crazy what you can do when you need help."
Harper was among some 20 soldiers who arrived at Langley Air Force Base Thursday afternoon after spending about two weeks in Haiti. They belong to the 689th Rapid Port Opening Element, a specialized unit that responds to natural disasters or humanitarian crises around the world on short notice.
Riding in a Chinook wasn't Harper's day job, although that provided one of his most vivid memories.
He spent most of his time at the Port-au-Prince International Airport. Members of the 689th served with a joint task force that coordinated the sorting and delivery of thousands of tons of supplies arriving there from around the world.
Several soldiers got the chance to ride out with the helicopters they loaded. They saw how their work was paying dividends.
"It felt good when we touched down and delivered supplies," Harper said. "It made me appreciate what I have. People complain every day about what's going on. You see this and it's like, I got it good."
Loading those helicopters required a highly coordinated effort. Each chopper had to carry exactly the right amount of aid to the right area. Staff Sgt. Anthony Robles was in the middle of that effort.
"As a unit, we build a layout," he said. "So we have all different commodities. You have your rice, your beans, your oil, whatever is needed. Everything is separated."
Drivers with forklifts took supplies to the airfield for loading. Robles directed that process and made sure nothing went astray. An improperly loaded helicopter could have disastrous consequences.
"I was there to make sure the wrong thing didn't happen," he said. "We know where everything goes based on what our commander is being told by the JTF (Joint Task Force). We have to give the pilots the correct poundage. If we don't, they can crash."
Farther up the chain of command was 1st Lt. Simon Johnstone. He was in charge of the entire cargo distribution yard.
"Really, one of the biggest challenges was finding out what all this aid was," he said. "A lot of it was coming in French and other languages. You're out there translating, trying to figure what each piece is and where it's going."
A typical day for Johnstone began at 4:30 a.m. and ended at 11:30 p.m.
"There was a lot of sitting up in the operations center at the end of the day, crunching numbers, making sure it all matched up," he said. "And it did -- so it's all worthwhile."
They succeeded in another way, noted Robles, who was assigned to the 689th from another unit for the Haiti mission.
"Everybody came home safe," he said. "As a whole team, I think we did very well in a real-world mission."