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Guardsmen Return to a Disaster Area
Some Are Shaken, Others Stoic Over Losses at Home

By Robert E. Pierre and Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 10, 2005

ALEXANDRIA, La., Sept. 9 -- For the past year, the 256th Brigade of the Louisiana National Guard had lobbed artillery shells at suspected insurgent hideouts in Iraq. It had patrolled the country's dusty highways, losing soldiers to roadside bombs. All the while, its members had dreamed of returning home.

On Friday, some of them did, to be greeted by the governor, tearful and smiling relatives -- and Katrina's devastation.

"We had all kinds of plans to come home and do all kinds of things," said Spec. Kaywon Jones, 24, whose family in New Orleans is either scattered in shelters or missing. "All of your motivation just died because you've got to go and work to help your family get back together."

Among those guardsmen arriving Friday were 100 soldiers, most of whom are assigned to Jackson Barracks, which is on the border between New Orleans's 9th Ward and St. Bernard Parish -- both of which suffered catastrophic damage and numerous deaths in the hurricane.

It's is like going from one war zone to another. New Orleans is an uninhabitable mess, and more than a million Louisiana residents around the state and the nation are in search of new homes, schools and churches.

Spec. Tremayne Clark, who lived in Uptown New Orleans, said that his father has visited the home, which stood in four feet of water. The family believes many of its belongings, however, were spared because they were on the second floor.

"I hope to get some of my clothes," he said. "I'm not buying any more clothes."

Almost since she struck, Katrina has been inextricably linked, for some, with the ongoing war in Iraq. Residents stuck in New Orleans after the storm hit, and who were later in shelters, complained that the federal government was building schools and rescuing people in Fallujah and Baghdad but couldn't even provide food to its own. In Louisiana and Mississippi, civilian and military leaders said the response to the hurricane was delayed by the absence of the Mississippi National Guard's 155th Infantry Brigade and Louisiana's 256th Infantry Brigade, each with thousands of troops in Iraq.

Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D), who greeted the returning soldiers, alluded to that allegation in her remarks Friday.

"We needed to have them home," she said. "We needed them to help rebuild."

Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, who toured disaster areas in coastal Mississippi and Louisiana on Friday, said he is developing troop rotations that would keep as many as 50,000 National Guard troops in the region for four months, if necessary. He said National Guard troops likely would spend 30-day tours in the area, which means as many as 200,000 of the available 319,000 troops currently in the United States could serve in the region by the end of the year.

Blum said that generally the guardsmen in the Gulf Coast are very enthusiastic to be there and to be able to help. Blum visited Bay St. Louis, Miss., flew along the coastline, flew over to New Orleans and toured a couple of different areas. He went to the headquarters in Orleans Parish and St. Bernard Parish, then flew to Baton Rouge.

Blum toured Bay St. Louis with Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee. Taylor's waterfront home and those of all his neighbors were flattened when Katrina hit. The city's main street along the bay has been obliterated.

National Guard troops have cleared 65 miles of local streets there since they arrived, and Taylor was particularly complimentary of their efforts. Taylor, who has been helping local residents over the past week and who escaped the flood by staying with relatives miles away, railed against the Federal Emergency Management Agency and what he described as its lack of organization and capability.

Speaking to a National Guard task force with troops from 22 states, Taylor said, "You all turned this around; it was pretty chaotic before you got here."

Taylor said FEMA had organized a central food drop point, and FEMA representatives said they needed National Guard troops to distribute food from there.

Taylor said: "You are waiting on someone who isn't coming. Half the National Guard is in Iraq."

But while the debate rages over whether more National Guard should be in Louisiana and Mississippi helping with the cleanup, the returning members of the 256th Infantry Brigade were merely enjoying the reunion with their families.

Sgt. Jemal Foster Sr. was all smiles as his three children clung to his legs and arms. He lived in New Orleans East and is fairly certain that his home is underwater. The family is doubling up with his parents in Amite, La. His own proud father said they could stay as long as needed.

"They don't realize what's going on," Foster said, looking down at this children. "They think it's just a little water. We've got to weigh our option. We had our efforts over there, and now it's turned this way."

The citizen soldiers have little time to decompress. Those who did not live in the affected communities get four days of vacation before they return to active duty. Those who lost homes and possessions or had damage get seven days to try to get their lives back together.

On Friday, they weren't complaining. Joe Portir Sr. held up a sign that said "New Orleans Favorite Son" as his son, Joe Jr., arrived. The family's home in New Orleans sustained substantial damage, and Joe Sr. said his job in New Orleans is gone. He has relocated to New Iberia, La.

"This is a ray of sunshine in the dark we have been living," he said.

While waiting for his parents to come, Clark, the specialist from New Orleans, was sipping a cool cup of beer under the shade of a tent. Like most others, he didn't want to talk much about Iraq and the lives lost there. "Even though the city is gone," he said, "it's still good to be home."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company