Sergeant Steve Henkel was humbled by the people of Haiti after spending a year sharing his policing experience with Haitian Coast Guard officers and visiting a local orphanage.
The 26-year Toronto Police officer returned home on August 19 after a 12-month assignment in Haiti, a country plagued by political instability and natural disasters.
Assigned to Haiti’s Coast Guard, Henkel developed training programs and accompanied Haitian military personnel on long-range patrols, in addition to mentoring and training local officers. He also assisted with counter-narcotics patrol and supervised officers at the satellite coastguard stations in Cap Haitien and Les Cayes.
“Working on water was a perfect assignment for me,” said Henkel, a former head of the Service’s underwater search and recovery team. “With Haiti being an island, strengthening the operational capability of the Coast Guard is key. I was very privileged to work with a great team of officers from around the world as part of a broader effort to secure the country.”
“It was an experience of a lifetime and I feel very blessed to be able to serve not just my Service but also my country. There is no greater privilege than taking on an experience on an international stage. Canadians are very much appreciated and respected for the value and experience they bring to the table.”
Stationed in Port-au-Prince, Henkel and his crew travelled almost three hours daily to and from their Coast Guard base.
“We passed through Cité Soleil and Martissant, which are some tough communities, while making the commute and we were caught in gunfire on a few occasions from gangs or Haitian police shooting at suspects,” he related. “We took cover and everything worked out well. Those were the only times in which I came close to being in the line of gunfire.”
One of the highlights of Henkel’s Haitian experience were the Sundays he spent at a local orphanage, Le Main Divine.
Hundreds of orphanages exist across Haiti to accommodate children who lost their parents in the January 2010 earthquake and others whose families are too poor to take care of them.
“I was part of a group that managed the orphanage’s financial books, raised money for the facility and played with the kids every Sunday on my day off,” Henkel recalled. “There were 53 children there and their ages range from 18 months to 17 years. The majority lost their parents or were separated from them after the earthquake four years ago.”
Henkel said he would consider returning to Haiti to volunteer.
“I will certainly do it again,” he said. “You think you are going to transform Haiti, but the country transforms you. I love the country and I do hope it reaches the point where tourism can flourish and there can be some kind of stability. The last year was a fabulous experience for me. I will miss the children in the orphanage and the colleagues I worked with. I, however, miss my family and am looking forward to getting back to a stable routine.”
Teenagers Natasha and Erick Henkel just couldn’t wait to give their dad a big hug and tell him how much they love and missed when he landed.
“We have been on vacation with him as a family since he was away, but we are so happy to have him back at home and we appreciate what he has done in Haiti,” said Natasha, who celebrates her 17th birthday next month. “I miss having him at my soccer games.”
While in Haiti, Henkel’s children and his wife, Marlies, vacationed with him in Florida for the 2013 March break and in Aruba last Christmas.
“Those times were exciting and we enjoyed them, but nothing compares to having him back home,” said Marlies Henkel. “We have been married for 17 and this is the first time that we have been apart for so long.”
She said that serving overseas was high on her husband’s priority list.
“We talked a lot about it,” she said. “He always wanted to go overseas and do something like this. The kids are at an age now where there was an opportunity and he seized it with both hands. We are so proud of him.”
Marlies parents, Paul and Claire Buskermolen, along with her brother and sister-in-law – Peter and Stacey Buskermolen – also formed part of the welcoming party.
“At first, we didn’t think it was a good idea for him to go away,” said Peter Buskermolen. “The family, however, adapted well and we are very proud of what Steve did in Haiti.”
Dan Quigley, president of the Toronto Police Military Veterans, Deputy Chief Mark Saunders, Service Chaplain Walter Kelly, Sergeant Allan Uhrich , who is in charge of the Service’s International Police Operations and his predecessor, Staff Sergeant Darryl Talbot, Constable Lou Copat and other officers formed a guard of honour.
“I am not surprised that Steve took on this assignment,” said Copat. “He’s a go-getter who likes to do things to help other people.”
A McMaster University forensic anthropology graduate, with a longstanding interest in drowning investigations and underwater forensics, Henkel was recognized with a Chief of Police Excellence Award 10 years ago for transforming the Marine Unit from a maritime search-and-rescue entity to a marine tactical detachment over a five-year period.
He was the third Service member to be deployed to Haiti.
Constables Daniel Saleh and Jean Bresse were the first Toronto Police officers to carry out critical peacekeeping and peace support operations in Haiti, since police deployments to that country started just over two decades ago. They returned home in August 2013 from the year-long assignment working alongside local police officers.
Constable Antoinette Rowe, of Traffic Services, who is serving in Haiti, will return home early next year.
Since 1999, a total of 89 Service members have been deployed to Bosnia, East Timor, Kosovo, Jordan, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Haiti through the Royal Canadian Mounted Police International Peace Operations branch.
The Canadian mission in Afghanistan ended last March. Nearly 300 Canadian police officers served in the war-torn country in the last 11 years.