“Haitians are mean and violent people.” – Corporal Billy Poertner, USMC
It was a harsh assessment forged in combat by Marine Corps Corporal Billy Poertner in 1994. Poertner was deployed to Haiti during one of the most violent periods of Haiti’s history as international forces descended on the island to overthrow a military regime. He was greeted by whizzing bullets and razor-sharp machetes.
February 2010. Our Marine is now Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Billy Poertner, a boatswain’s mate with Port Security Unit (PSU) 307 in Tampa, Fla.
PSU 307 are deployed to Haiti in response to the devastating earthquake that struck Port-Au-Prince in January. Again Poertner arrived amid unimaginable chaos. Though, this time he had a different perspective on the Haitian people he was sent to help.
Poertner could barely wait to get ashore and get to work so he volunteered to travel ahead of the unit with a scouting party to reconnoiter the area where the PSU was going to camp according to Commander Keith Johnson, commanding officer of the 307, and did so with minimal sleep and rest. Johnson adds that Poertner humbly gave his personal items to Haitian citizens he encountered boots dry.
What had changed?
“Haitians are lovely and kind.” – BMC Paul Cormier, USCG
Spring 2008. Poertner and PSU 307 are attending a joint training evolution with PSU 309 in Port Clinton, Ohio. It was here that he met Chief Petty Officer Paul Cormier, a boatswain’s mate with PSU 309, and it was that meeting which would unimaginably change Poertner and impact thousands of Haitian citizens just two short years later.
“(Cormier) said to me, ‘my experience is that they are lovely and kind,’” said Poertner.
Cormier told him about an orphanage he owned in Haiti and how difficult life was for the people there. Poertner listened with an open heart and an open mind as the chief shared his intense love of the island and its people.
“It was a 180-degree turnaround,” said Poertner who was deeply moved by the chief’s passion.
“Haitians are really incredible and resilient.” – BM2 Billy Poertner, USCG
Back to the future. Haiti. February 2010.
Carrying Cormier’s words as he arrived in Haiti, Poertner had a higher sense of responsibility. It was immediately obvious that Poertner was going to do everything in his power to bring aide to every Haitian he could during this mission.
What Poertner didn’t realize was that his life was about to change again. And, that change would be instigated by the arrival of an old friend.
“(Chief Paul Cormier) strolled into camp out of nowhere and gave me a big hug,” said Poertner.
Cormier quickly informed Poertner that the earthquake had done major damage to his orphanage. The more than 300 children living there were suffering from a lack of food, water and basic necessities.
Poertner wanted to help but there was one big problem. His team had immense work ahead of them in the port that could not be abandoned. The PSU’s assigned mission was vital to the overall response and it required their attention 24 hours a day.
But Poertner was determined to do something.
He spread the word and rallied the whole crew to the cause.
“Poertner was a staunch advocate of the Haitian people and consistently reminded his shipmates of their needs and ways we could help them through this devastating event,” said CDR Johnson.
People began setting aside their own rations for the orphans and soon they had sea-bags overflowing with food that needed to be delivered. Again the crew rose to the occasion and sacrificed their rack time to make the trek to the orphanage.
“Almost all of them went on their down time,” said Poertner. “For them to donate their six or seven hours of rest was incredible.”
Arriving at the orphanage they set to work feeding the kids, building bunk beds, treating wounds and doing everything they could in the short time they could spare. Leaving the children with enough food to last until more aid could arrive, the crew returned to their camp knowing the orphans would be alright.
Inspired both by the sense of accomplishment and the sheer gratitude of the people they met, the team would go on to help two more orphanages they found in their spare time before the end of their deployment. Yet Poertner’s mission didn’t end there.
After forming a particularly special bond with one of the children from a nearby village, Poertner asked the chief to track her down so he could pay for her schooling.
The Coast Guard response to Haiti touched millions of lives but it’s really not about the numbers. The true impact is born from the sacrifice’s of people like Billy Poertner who did’t just deliver food and treat injuries. They brought hope.
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