KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – Haitian-American Lt. Ramses Brunache was supposed to be the one in danger in Afghanistan. Now his sister is dead, his homeland is devastated, and he's trying to return to help save Haiti.
Brunache found out about the earthquake in a 3 a.m. phone call from his wife at the base where he's stationed in dusty Kandahar province, the Taliban's southern heartland. He's been here since July as a communications officer with the 97th Military Police Battalion out of Fort Riley, Kansas.
"She told me something happened in Haiti, and my sister is not going to make it," he said.
His wife lives in Atlanta and the only information she had at that point was from a text message saying that his sister, Immacula, and her three young daughters had been inside their house in Port-au-Prince when it collapsed. They now know her 12-year-old son was the only one who made it out.
Brunache went straight to the base's Internet cafe and spent hours scouring news sites for details. He watched the death toll rise from hundreds to thousands. Estimates of the dead from Tuesday's magnitude-7.0 quake now regularly top 100,000.
He tried to call his mother in Haiti, but couldn't get through. The line was always busy. Eventually a brother got through and told him that his mother was fine.
He thought of taking emergency leave, but said he couldn't stand going back to Atlanta and not do anything to help out in Haiti. At 40 years old and with 11 years of military service, he wanted to be there. So he asked his superior officers if they could get him to Haiti, even if only for a month or two. He hopes he can help by serving as a translator, but says he'll do whatever is needed.
"I would like to help as many people as possible," he said. "If I have to pick up debris, I can do that." He has a brother who is also based in Afghanistan who is trying to get reassigned as well.
Brunache's superior officers are trying to get him assigned to a military police battalion being deployed out of Fort Brag, North Carolina. More than 12,000 U.S. forces are expected in the region.
Brunache, whose round, youthful face blends in with the much younger soldiers he serves with, grew up in the poor Port-au-Prince suburb of Carrefour with his American mother and Haitian father. He moved to the United States in 1998 and joined the military soon after. He helped clean up Hurricane Katrina before being deployed to Kuwait, and then to Afghanistan.
Many of his friends and extended family members are still unaccounted for. It took four days for authorities to find the bodies of his sister and her daughters and confirm their deaths.
"We tried to send money to bury them, but there was no way to do that," he said. The hardest part was not having been there when it happened, he said. Maybe if he had, he could have rescued some of them.
While he waits to hear if he will be allowed to serve in Haiti, Brunache spends as much time as possible on the Internet, reading the latest updates and posting prayers and good memories of the country on his Facebook page. He repeatedly talks about how thankful he is for the outpouring of aid and avoids talking about what's been destroyed.
The news has filtered through the company that he lost family members in the earthquake, but he said he's only talked to a few people about it. He seems to prefer that the news reached his fellow soldiers from others and that he didn't have to explain.