I wanted to publish this full account from an 82nd Airborne soldier who was deployed to New Orleans in response to Hurricane Katrina as it is worth reading in its entirety. No this individual was not party to abuses of civilians or anything like that but it is interesting from a number of perspectives. For one thing, it is an on the ground account of a few days that most Americans would prefer not to hear about. That needs to change. Secondly, it demonstrates some interesting psychology on the part of the soldier, how he thinks and address the world around him when placed in a wartime frame of reference but is then suddenly deployed to patrol the streets of America. -Jack
Hurricane Katrina hit the area around New Orleans the night of August 29, 2005 and by 15 September my Battalion, 3rd BN 505th PIR, was alerted for a possible deployment to support at that time what was known as Operation Pelican.
Rumors flew around as to what we would actually be doing down there. The rumors ran the gamut from handing out MRE’s to full scale clearing operations. Day by day we grew more impatient as we watched the news and heard stories of police getting into full scale firefights, the National Guard being overran and most disturbingly of the mass rapes that were right then happening in the dark superdome.
NCO’s who had been deployed were busy readying our new soldiers on urban combat and night operations as we had just returned from Iraq that last year. In our minds as NCO’s we didn’t care what country someone was from “If anybody shoots at us they are the enemy,” was a common saying heard throughout the Company area. Officers who heard this talk immediately attempted to stomp it out by using phrases such as “Those are Americans you’re talking about,” but as most of these young officers had not deployed, their words fell on deaf ears.
Finally, the day to deploy arrived, and as we loaded up the same HMMWV’s we had in Iraq shock was expressed throughout the Company. No crew served weapons, no mortars and no body armor! Of course, we all knew that crew served weapons and mortars would be useless in a humanitarian situation, but these tools had become as essential as car keys and cell phones. Many NCO’s had their soldier’s sneak body armor on to the vehicles, under seats and in bags. As we rolled from Fort Bragg in a 150 vehicle convey, the order to wear our signature maroon berets came out over the net. We were supposed to keep the berets on the entire trip, costing me my favorite maroon beret five minutes into the movement.
The movement took us two and half days of driving, switching out with the driver, he and I would take shifts. Often we would stop at a truck stop and gas up the entire Battalion, as we were moving too fast to set up an actual fuel point. Surprisingly, we had few break downs but arrived in New Orleans on time.
Driving through the French Quarter on the way to the New Orleans Naval Annex was a total shock. The devastation was impressive, destroyed buildings, cars flipped upside down in houses, and houses even washed into the middle of the street. As we approached the Naval Annex, we drove through an area near a propane storage facility. This building had exploded and set fires for blocks around. It immediately took me straight back to Iraq. The only differences were that all the signs were in English and the police looked like Americans.
The Naval annex was like any staging base in any theatre. We slept on the ground in the parking garage. Platoons slept in engineer taped-off areas and set up hooches. We were sharing the area with a unit from the 1st Cav, no disrespect but it was only a matter of time before we rumbled with them. Not 20 minutes into the first day after we had arrived, a fight broke out between some Paratroopers and some Cav Troopers about the Cav supposedly stealing something. This would be a constant throughout our whole stay.
Things Infantrymen will do when not occupied, besides get into trouble, is train and do PT. So after spending a night and getting an intel dump, we began setting up pull up bars and laying out run routes. One Platoon would set up glass houses and another would have a grappling pit. We would rotate through these training sites for a few hours and then rest, as it was hotter than hell at the time.
Our attitudes were pretty bad, as the rest of Division was deployed at the time, “getting their kill on.” We saw this duty as a waste of military resources and told anybody who would come near, even to celebrities. An episode of “Mail Call” was being filmed while we were down there and the “Gunny” decided he wanted to walk with us. After trying to get several people to speak, he finally stopped a SAW gunner and confronted him on how he felt about being down here to help fellow Americans. This SAW gunner, a close friend of mine, looked him in the eye and responded that he would rather be in Iraq killing bad guys rather than handing out aid, as it was not what Paratroopers should be used for. The Gunny never came back out on patrol with us.
Since I was a Mortar Section Sergeant we only had about 7 guys, so getting a sector to ourselves was out of the question. So we got the “QRF” mobile. This was a contract ambulance that drove around looking for trouble. Well, that’s what the boys and I said, the EMT and paramedic in the ambulance were there to help people.
There are too many stories to tell, but the funniest was when a full bird Colonel Chaplain screamed obscenities at my boys and I for having our weapons slung up front. He stopped our ambulance and demanded to know who was in charge, I stepped forward and he walked past me and began to scream at the top of his lungs about how fucked up we were and how we didn’t need to be so intimidating. It’s particularly funny because he chose the smallest, skinniest and most feminine private to tell that to. After he left we all turned around and started laughing at the Private in question, as well as making sure we always kept our weapons slung up front.
Not every day was fun and games, there are several things I will never forget from that trip. One was a disembodied hand in the middle of a field. No blood marks, cut clean at the wrist just sitting in the middle of a field. Another time we found a huge friggin’ guy, had to have been over 350 pounds, rotting in a Mardi Gras float storage facility. Yeah that was pretty fucking spooky.
There were other instances such as the old lady who didn’t evacuate and she invited poor people from all over to live in her neighbors’ houses. We responded to a police call, and upon showing up, she gave us a warm lunch and explained that they were just going to tear these houses down and that the poor should get to use them first.
Another time, we responded to a barricaded individual who wouldn’t respond to verbal commands. He apparently attacked an aid worker, and brandished a shotgun. Being the most mobile, my Squad responded and eagerly loaded our weapons. Upon reaching the scene we realized that this wasn’t an emergency. This guy spoke zero English and thought he was being deported back to wherever. Once we got on scene he realized that pointing a gun at somebody was a bad idea, and he came out and spoke with us.
Numerous times throughout the trip, police would call us when they ran into gangs or groups of military age males. It would be easy for a gang of fifteen to intimidate one or two police officers. But when a squad of Paratroopers pulled up laden with LCE’s, M-4′s and flex cuffs, things calmed down.
Rumors persisted while we were in New Orleans, things ranging from the crazy (some cops were killed and skinned last night) to the lame (I hear we are here till Christmas). Like any deployment, we hated being in the rear. Every minute spent at the Naval Annex was another minute you could get screwed just for being there.
One instance comes to mind. When the commanding general flew in and saw us practicing battle drills and glass houses, he freaked out and demanded that we tear that stuff down and “don’t do it again.” Well, as soon as his bird took off we had those things set right back up.
I was exposed to government agencies and it made me realize something, this was their “Iraq.” There were rumors of DEA, US Marshals and ATF getting into OIF-style engagements. I personally didn’t see or hear of anything like, that but these dudes rolled around like it was Baghdad/Ramadi/Normandy. Most of the time we just laughed at them in their black kit and tried to get to work.
If there were any cases of abuse by Soldiers, it was due to the fact that we were trained to be employed in combat. We were not Police. The few times we had to resort to force, we solved it with speed, surprise and violence of action. The thing no one wants to admit is that New Orleans was a dangerous city before the hurricane. When you have a population used to the same Police following the same rules, people grow smart to things they can and can’t do. When you threw Infantrymen into that situation we responded the best way we knew how. People got roughed up if they were threatening towards us, but we helped and saved a whole lot more. I remember helping LMTV loads of grateful people to the collection points, just to turn around and do it some more.