Hundreds of Louisiana National Guard soldiers deployed in Iraq were in Kuwait on Wednesday as a first stop on the way home, where the majority of their 3,700-member brigade was likely to help with hurricane relief, U.S. military officials said.
The military was also sending advance teams to help members of the Louisiana Guard's 256th Brigade Combat Team with their families' disaster assistance, as well as 100 military chaplains to counsel the veterans returning to devastation at home.
"There's no question they got a double whammy after a year in a very tough combat environment and then a catastrophe like this, which might be the biggest disaster in U.S. history," Brig. Gen. Sean Byrne, the U.S. military's director of personnel management, said at Camp Victory in Kuwait.
Nearly 550 of the Louisiana brigade's troops lost homes or loved ones or were otherwise affected by Hurricane Katrina, said Lt. Col. Debbie Haston-Hilger, a U.S. military spokeswoman in Kuwait. Scores of the soldiers have family members not yet accounted for, she said. The brigade, which served in Baghdad, was coming to the end of its rotation, officials said.
Sgt. John Roger, 30, of lower St. Bernard Parish, said his wife and two children were safely at his mother-in-law's house in Kansas. But he said a neighbor back in Louisiana who was riding out the storm on her roof took a picture of Roger's house floating by.
Asked where his house was now, Roger said: "I don't know. Probably in the Gulf somewhere."
In Baghdad, Roger said, he was in convoys that were hit by roadside bombs at least 10 times. A car bomb claimed the life of another sergeant in his unit, he said.
Before Katrina, "I was looking forward to getting home, taking some time off, getting back into life," he said.
The military said separately in a statement in Baghdad that it was trying to speed transport home for the Louisiana Guard members. The entire brigade was expected to be out of Iraq by the third week of September.
Most members were expected to help with Katrina relief, said the brigade's commander, Brig. Gen. John Basilica Jr.
They might be ordered or allowed to take part in relief efforts in Louisiana, or they might be demobilized at Fort Polk, La., and return to civilian life, Lt. Col. Dave Sheridan, a National Guard member from New York state, said at Camp Victory.
A Mississippi National Guard unit based south of Baghdad also had hundreds of members affected by the hurricane. They are not due to return until January.