For Maryland Guard in New Orleans, a case of hurry up and wait

Soldiers are there to help, but they await orders

Katrina's Wake

September 05, 2005|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

NEW ORLEANS - It's 9 o'clock on a steamy, sunny Sunday morning, and as he sits leaning against the side of a wind-damaged airplane hangar, Sgt. 1st Class John Pack of Parkville looks a tad forlorn as he punches at the keys of his Cingular cell phone.

"No signal today," says the veteran communications specialist with the Headquarters Support Company, 229th Military Support Battalion of the Maryland National Guard. "Can't get a connection."

Pack, 36, might be speaking for the whole 29th Military Police Company, the battle-tested outfit to which he is attached on a relief mission to storm-ravaged New Orleans - still in waterlogged ruins in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The old military adage, "Hurry up and wait," might have been written for these 60 citizen-soldiers, who gathered from all corners of Maryland on Friday morning, flew down that afternoon and were still camped out at Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base a few miles from New Orleans yesterday afternoon, awaiting the particulars of their assignment.

"There are so many different elements coming together here - FEMA, the local police, the state police, the Guard," said Pack, a White Marsh bartender with wire-rimmed glasses and a military brush cut. "The aircraft coming in and out yesterday - I was in Saudi for Gulf War I, and I've never seen anything like it. But this waiting game will drive you crazy."

Pack's energetic company commander, Capt. Marc Blum, an Owings Mills native and full-time Guardsman, would wangle the unit's general mission from the top brass by midafternoon.

Over the next 10 days, at least, he would be leading some form of operation in St. Bernard Parish, the township hit hardest by the flooding. On the north bank of the Mississippi, just east of New Orleans, it is still almost completely submerged.

Jackson Barracks, the largest military base in the region and home of the Louisiana National Guard, is downriver from the French Quarter on the Orleans-St. Bernard Parish line and still under 12 feet of water, according to reports from the Louisiana National Guard.

Pack's mood, a mix of eagerness and edge, typified a highly trained outfit that understands part of military life - that a mission as sudden and vast in scale as this one calls for patience.

"If I'm not mistaken," said Blum, the Louisiana sun glinting off his shaved head, "this is the largest continental National Guard deployment in history, including 9/11. Units have arrived from 40 states. The Louisiana Guard has to establish priorities, then match every unit to specific needs. It's a lot of management."

The soldiers have spent two muggy nights camped in a hangar beside the base firehouse, a quarter-mile from the increasingly frenzied joint operations center where Blum attended several briefings yesterday.

The captain wanted his solders in action. "In an operation this size, it helps to make your presence known," he said. He was glad to know, at least, that they'd be heading to one of the neediest areas.

Rumors have swirled that the MPs will be pulling bodies from the water. Because of the dangers of contamination and infection, it's a job as dangerous as it would be grisly, but details of what might lie ahead were not available.

Citizen-soldiers like Pack did their best to stay rested and ready. "You can't unpack too much of your gear," said Sgt. Kirk Cleary, 39, of Beltsville, who spent part of the previous evening photographing a scarlet sunset. "Things could ramp up in a hurry."

The youngest MP, 19-year-old Adonis Ellis of Silver Spring, balanced nerves with resolve. Ellis had attended just one day of his freshman year at Montgomery College when he got his call to duty. "Once I see the situation there, I'll be fine. I'll definitely be ready to go," he declared.

Some soldiers played cards - others shot hoops, although Katrina had ripped the top off the lone backboard here.

Lt. Shawn Cobb, a medic and full-time nurse at Johns Hopkins Hospital, said the enforced inactivity is not necessarily all bad. "A sudden change in climate like this can shock the system," he said, glancing over his shoulder at a few napping soldiers. "Two days to acclimate helps."

Later, the soldiers seemed relieved when Blum, sporting wraparound shades, gathered his platoon sergeants and told them they had a mission now, and that details would be available by the end of the day.

"They have a tough time waiting," said Blum. "So do I. Citizen-soldiers like to help fellow citizens. We're ready to go."

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