Three soldiers from the Louisiana National Guard sat Monday in one of the many chow halls on Camp Liberty, eyes glued to the wide screen television in the corner that bears witness to Hurricane Katrina's battering of their home state. "The eye of the storm went over my parish," said Staff Sergeant Chris Nappier, 28, from New Orleans. "It's passing over the hospital where my mom works. She's a nurse. She's still there with her patients." Spc. John Basco, also in his 20s, shook his head. "I had to get emergency leave on the last squall to go home to fix the flooding in my basement. I can't imagine what this is going to do." On TV, a Fox News reporter gets blown across the screen; the weather map keeps up a nasty white swirl. Staff Sergeant Ken Carrigee, 26, leaned back in his chair, grinning. "People back home constantly worry about us," he said. "Now we get the chance to worry about them."
With only eight days left before their tours end, the biggest worry on these soldiers' minds is 10,000 miles away. "We were going to have a homecoming," said Carrigee. "Now we don't know if we'll have homes to go home to."
The men are with the 1st Battalion, 141st Field Artillery unit based out of Jackson Barracks in New Orleans. The unit has been in Baghdad since October 2004, part of the 256th Brigade of the Louisiana National Guard. The 256th has been deployed for close to 17 months, running missions outside of Camp Liberty, including patrols on the hazardous Airport Road. It's been a year of steady harassment and seven-day work weeks. On the 141st's first day in Iraq, their convoy was attacked by mortars. In June, a rocket slammed into the trailer next to their barracks, killing a civilian contractor and injuring a number of troops.
A quarter mile away, about a dozen other soldiers in the unit spent the black, dusty evening behind the 141st's Tactical Operations Center waiting for news. The makeshift headquarters has a few rows of picnic tables out back under a canopy. The unit's nickname, "The Baghdad Headhunters," is on a sign out front. They talked amongst themselves Monday, trying to piece together from the Internet, broken cell-phone chats and cable news what's going on. "It's the perfect f - ked-up ending to a perfect f - ked-up war," said one soldier.
Some of them have heard from their families, safely evacuated; others haven't. Even the phone line to Jackson Barracks is dead.
A cell phone rang.
"Hi momma," said Specialist Jason Ragas, a talkative Louisiana native.
The men quieted down.
"What side of the levee? The north side or the south side? Ten-plus feet of water throughout the parish? Where are you getting this? Nola.com? Can we get Nola.com here?"
Yes, the answer came back from inside, they can. The soldiers moved to the Internet, leaving Master Sergeant Johnny Graves, out on the porch alone. Graves, the highest-ranking non-commissioned officer in the unit, had some paperwork to finish up. In civilian life, he's a drill instructor for an at-risk youth camp. He looks the part: a lean Dr. Phil with a crew cut and a stern demeanor. "All my boys are from New Orleans. It's hard to keep the guys focused. I'm the one who's going to have to tell them tomorrow to get up and go to work." He paused, inhaled on a smoke. "We have eight days left. It's too late in the game to lose anybody now."
1st Sergeant Michael McDow scrolled down the page of Nola.com, reading out loud the relevant news. Fifty-one percent of the residences in St. Bernard's Parish, which three men call home, have been destroyed, 12 percent severely damaged.
"The roof of the civic auditorium was blown off," read McDow. "That's right by my parents' house," said a soldier.
McDow continued the neighborhood-by-neighborhood assessment. One name struck a cord for Sergeant Robert Pettingkill, who said his girlfriend has taken shelter in a hotel. "That's it, all my possessions, gone," he said.
Sgt. Jeff Bohne, 30, still hadn't heard Monday from his "hard-headed wife," who decided to ride out the storm in New Orleans with his 11-month-old son, Jacob. Because of the deployment, he guesses he's seen Jacob for a total of about 30 days. He and his wife were supposed to close on a new home Tuesday. "I don't care about the house, it's my son. I can't get through to them." He tried to call again on a cell phone, but was greeted by this recording: "Due to a hurricane in your area, this call cannot be completed."
McDow read out loud that 4,000 troops from Tennessee National Guard have been activated to go into Louisiana. During past storms, the 141st, the soldiers said, have been the guys out in the weather distributing water and sandbagging their own neighborhoods. Many of the soldiers would have liked to get a shot at preparing for Katrina. In a sad irony, one of the soldiers here said that his wife got a call Monday morning from the National Guard with a message for him to "show up at Jackson Barracks at 8:00."
The update from NOLA.com was finished for now. Specialist Ragas asked anybody if they wanted pizza; the guys dispersed, still anxious. "I'm not getting much sleep tonight," said Ragas. Or for the next eight days.