PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Army Col. Kenneth Donnelly said he will leave Haiti this week a better man, but not before leaving Haiti a better place.
Donnelly, the commander of Task Force Bon Voizen, handed over the keys Monday to the two engineer construction projects that the task force set out to complete when it hit the ground here two months ago.
Tuesday, its doctors and dentists saw their final patients, and Donnelly officially ended the exercise in a small ceremony at the airport here.
The task force is a Louisiana National Guard-led humanitarian exercise sponsored by U.S. Southern Command. Task force troops have been providing medical, dental and veterinary care, and working on engineering projects in two small villages.
Donnelly told a crowd of community leaders and locals gathered for the final ceremonies at a newly built school and medical clinic, "Today is more than just an end to our operations here … it is a new beginning.”
“The new facilities you see here today will provide meaningful education and health care to the people in this area, as well as mark significant progress in your efforts to rebuild and expand critical infrastructure in the great nation of Haiti,” he said.
Task force engineers built a three-room schoolhouse, a four-room medical clinic with restroom facilities in the small village of Upper Poteau and a four-room medical clinic in the nearby village of Bardon Marchan.
Health care and education go hand-in-hand in the efforts to better the lives of this impoverished area, local officials said.
As the mayor and representatives from the ministries of health and education spoke at both locations, an interpreter was not needed to convey the crux of their message to Donnelly and his troops.
"Merci," punctuated all of the speeches.
"Please take your hands out of your pockets to applaud the Americans," a local mayor said.
"I can't find the words in my vocabulary to thank the Americans for building the clinic," the local health ministry representative said.
Since receiving his marching orders for this job more than nine months ago, Donnelly has been a man on a mission. His planning has been methodical and by the book. Preparing for this mission, he said, is the same as for any other deployment.
The difference, Donnelly said, is in the outcome.
"I felt good coming here. The people of Haiti need our help. I feel like I'm part of the solution for them," he said. "I was able to come here, and not only have a passion about the mission, but have a passion for the people of Haiti.
"And I think I'm going to be a better person for it. I think it made me a better man.”
Donnelly's goal on the ground was to build on the successes of last year's task force and to set the standard for any task force that follows him.
"I think we achieved that," he said.
Last year's earthquake was the worst experienced in Haiti in the last 200 years, and it generated an estimated $11.5 billion in damages and reconstruction costs, according to the U.S. State Department. U.S. government humanitarian relief efforts in Haiti total over $1 billion.
The United States pledged an additional $1.15 billion toward reconstruction efforts in the areas of energy, health, agriculture, governance and security.
All totaled, the task force's efforts will cost $40 million, including pay, logistics, local contracts, shipping supplies and equipment here, and the actual cost of the projects.
Officials here acknowledge the services they have provided are a "drop in the bucket" compared to the need.
While the medical services provide some immediate relief, the engineering projects are designed to provide long-term solutions to the problems plaguing the area's health care and education efforts.
Health care is nonexistent in these small villages. Pregnant women often ride for miles on the backs of motorcycles along rutted dirt roads to the nearest hospital. A clinic in these towns oftentimes means the difference between receiving care and medicine, or not.
The local ministry of health official promised that the clinics would be staffed and stocked with needed medicine and equipment, a condition set by Donnelly before the task force would commit its resources.
Besides the local ministries, Donnelly's staff reached out to nongovernmental organizations and the U.S. State Department to fill requests for equipment and medicine.
"One of the things I definitely pushed for this year was to make sure the facilities got turned over to the right hands and that it was turnkey -- filled, furnished, ready to be operational when we turned the keys over after the ceremony," Donnelly said.
The local ministry of education official promised that the school would be used to cater to adults, teaching them agricultural vocations needed to get jobs and live in this rural area.
Although public education is free, the cost is still high for Haitian families who have to pay for uniforms, books and supplies.
According to State Department data, only 65 percent of primary school-aged children are actually enrolled, and at the secondary level, the figure drops to around 20 percent. Less than 35 percent of those who enter will complete primary school. This leaves the largest portion of the adult population under-educated and nearly unemployable.
It is the long-term impact of these facilities that officials hope will help change Haiti's impoverished landscape one community at a time.
Just over two hours by air from Florida, Haiti's proximity to the United States also makes it an ideal deployment location for training.
"I think we'll continue to be able to train our Soldiers and do it well in a real-time situation," he said. "We get training on our end. They get improved infrastructure on their end. I think it's a win-win situation."
The deputy task force commander, Army Lt. Col. Michael Pryor, said the relationship also puts the United States on good footing with the rest of the Caribbean community.
"They see that we're willing to come here and help out. I think it gives them confidence that, within our capabilities, the United States will help any of our good neighbors that are down here when they need it," Pryor said.
Pryor is one of the 160 "duration staff," or those who have spent the entire time here on the ground. The task force is commanded by members of the Louisiana National Guard, but more than 2,300 troops from other states and three countries have joined in for two-week rotations.
Nearing the end of his military career, Pryor said this deployment has given him a fresh perspective on his priorities.
"I learned again how valuable the little things are. It's the small things in life that are really, really important," he said. "[When] you can eat, and you can sleep safely at night, and you're well and not sick from anything, that's the stuff that's really important.”
Despite seeing photos and hearing the stories of the poverty here, Pryor said nothing prepared him to see it firsthand. It became real to him on the first day when a boy about the age of his own 13-year-old son came to his car begging for a bottle of water.
"I thought I was prepared, but not exactly. When you see that face and it's the face of your child, just in a different country, it's very moving," he said.
After driving to each of the sites where the task force would operate, Pryor said he realized that this mission went far past its training value. The Artibonite department, or province, where the task force operated, is about 70 miles northwest of Port-au-Prince.
Thousands fled to this rural area after the earthquake to look for jobs, food and water. Haitian officials chose this area for the task force efforts because they would rather improve the infrastructure here than have the displaced return to the already overcrowded inner city that is still struggling to recover.
"I could look and see that … it's all going to be worth it because these people will really appreciate our help," he said.
Pryor said as he drove along the countryside, he saw two sides to the locals. On one side they were poor and in need. But on the other, they are hard working and take pride in their work and country.
"You pass by the markets and you see that although some just have a little bit of fruit to sell, it's all stacked very nicely because they have pride in what they're trying to do," he said. "It's kind of a strange combination of folks in need and folks who are really prideful of what they do here."
Pryor said he hopes that the state's partnership with Haiti becomes official. Despite more than 20 years in the military and a tour in Iraq, he puts this deployment at the top of his career highlights.
"I'm going to take home a really good feeling. Of all the things I've done in my career, this -- by far -- has touched more people than anything I've done," he said.