“Pink Flamingos” by Alex Saari

I graduated from basic training and Advanced Individual Training in late December of 1994. At that time, Florida’s shores were often littered with the bodies of Haitians fleeing their country. From what I understood, there was a great deal of poverty and suffering under the rule of then President Aristide, there had been a military coup, and President Clinton authorized a special operations-led invasion into Haiti to disband the Haitian Army (widely considered the greatest cause of suffering in the country). There was a great deal of confusion as to who was ultimately responsible for the state Haiti was in, but without the strong arm option of the military to prop it up, the government collapsed, and the country fell into anarchy. I arrived in 1995, as part of the third rotation of US civil affairs soldiers taking part in a UN reconstruction effort trying to rebuild the government and restore the country’s basic infrastructure. Before my deployment, I had been promoted from an E-2 private to an E-4 specialist and then sent to Fort Bragg for activation. I then received a field promotion to sergeant in country and became the primary civil affairs NCO for the southwest region around the city of Les Cayes. I was 19 years old at the time.

On one particular day I needed to go to Cap Haitien, which was on the northern end of Haiti. This required that I travel in a helicopter. There were rumors that Cuban cigars were readily available in Cap Haitien, so several officers hitched a ride on the same helicopter. Since keeping officers alive was one of our primary missions, they sat in the center seats of the helicopter. Back then we were still using Hueys, and with all the center seats taken by cigar craving captains and majors, I was given one of the side jump seats. This left me hanging over the skids, where the side gunners would have crouched during Vietnam and with a tube in front of me where an M-60 would have been mounted. I didn’t mind the seating arrangement too much. Ever since I was young I had dreamt of being a pilot, and this opportunity for a little flight time excited me, regardless of the absence of amenities.

I put my earplugs in and my kevlar on, and snapped into the harness for the 90-minute flight. From the air, Haiti is mostly green and brown splotches, and because of the way I was attached to the aircraft, I was stuck staring, more or less, straight down for the trip. Eventually, we passed over a particularly brown stretch of water. Near the shoreline I noticed some bright pink dots. Haiti is massively polluted and contaminated, so I initially assumed that these dots were a chemical deposit in the water. But as we flew over, the dots all spread their wings and stretched out their necks as they took flight below us. It was beautiful. The pink was so intense, I couldn’t believe it was a color found in nature. With the thick silence from the earplugs, the blasting wind from the rotor, and the perfectly smooth, graceful motion below, it was a sublime moment. To my right I could hear a muffled voice; the pilot had also seen the birds and was telling the officers about the view. I could feel them behind me, wrestling with their own harnesses, trying to see; but they were trapped, stuck in their safe seats. I thought it funny that my lower enlisted status had given me something that their higher rank couldn’t have. Stranger than that, I felt my situation was better than theirs, because it afforded me opportunities like these.

This attitude has stuck with me through the years since. To this day, I use the lessons learned in that helicopter to evaluate any advancement opportunities in my life. Each step up is tempting, but I’m always asking myself, “Will I be able to see the flamingos?”

Alexandra Saari is a Physics student at UCSB hoping to graduate in spring of 2016. She enlisted as a Civil Affairs Specialist in the Army Reserve on Valentine’s Day 1994. She was deployed to Haiti in 1995 for Operation Uphold Democracy and held a variety of odd jobs throughout her unit until the end of her contract. Upon graduation, she hopes to use the knowledge and skills she has acquired to help solve ongoing issues with the environment, energy, and energy storage.