9/26/2005

t r u t h o u t - Met by Despair, Not Violence

And the "lock and load" order is confirmed by the original source: LA Times mirror at truthout.com -- law

Met by Despair, Not Violence
By Scott Gold
The Los Angeles Times

Saturday 03 September 2005

As they begin to patrol the chaotic city, troops are surprised by what they don't find.

New Orleans - Forty-four troops pressed together in their truck, swaying as one at every bump and turn like reeds in a river.

As they plunged into the dark water engulfing the business district of New Orleans, their wake pushed the body of a woman onto the steps of the Superdome. The floodwater had ripped her pants down to her knees. She was facedown in the muck, a red ribbon still tied neatly around her graying hair.

The troops, members of an elite Special Response Team from the Louisiana Army National Guard, were the first convoy out of what was rapidly becoming a massive military staging ground.

Their mission, simply, is to turn New Orleans into a police state - to "regain the city," 1st Sgt. John Jewell said.

The truck lurched through the streets, past buildings burning unabated and MPs in gun turrets. When they stopped to gear up for their arrival at the New Orleans Convention Center, where more than 15,000 people had been living in squalor since Katrina, these words echoed - for the first time, one would imagine - through the intersection of Poydras Avenue and Carondelet Street: "Lock and load!"

"Sixteen in the clip!" one Guardsman shouted, a common refrain used to indicate that rifles are fully loaded.

But when they arrived, they did not find marauding mobs. They did not come under fire. They found people who had lost everything in the storm and, since then, their dignity.

The troops were part of the Superdome team that came to town before the hurricane. For days, they had been cut off from news reports, sleeping and working among the refugees and the vicious rumor mill at the Superdome.

Their Superdome duties left them with a terrible image of the city. They knew that out on the streets, a police officer had been shot in the head, that looting was widespread, that snipers were taking shots even at boaters trying to rescue victims from rooftops and attics.

Now assigned to patrol the streets, they headed for the New Orleans Convention Center, in the city's central business district. Many had wads of tobacco in their bottom lip and emitted long, dense streams of spittle into the streets below.

Their mission was to establish a command post at the center, which officials have increasingly turned their attention to, particularly as the evacuation of the Superdome nears its end. They would then build a staging area to bring in food and water. Finally, they would send in teams to seize control of a massive and lawless facility.

The troops braced for the worst.

"Is this the calm before the storm?" one asked as they rolled through the streets.

"There are a lot of gangs out here in the water," said Sgt. 1st Class Maris Pichon, a 26-year veteran of the National Guard who served in Afghanistan last year. "This is not going to be a cakewalk."

Two trucks pulled beside them, one carrying water and one a massive pile of ready-to-eat military meals in boxes.

"Tell me they're not letting the food go in before the troops," one Guardsman said.

"That's called bait," another said.

They pulled into a parking lot next to the convention center in full battle mode. They spilled over the sides of the truck, formed a tight circle and began walking outward, stepping over the detritus of the refugees. Dirty underwear. A CD that included the song "Thank God I'm a Country Boy."

A troop carrier rolled over an empty water bottle, popping it like a balloon. The troops yanked their weapons to a firing position before realizing what it was.

"No civilians in this parking lot!" a sergeant shouted. "Hold your perimeter!"

No one came at them but a nurse. She was wearing a T-shirt that read "I love New Orleans." She ran down a broken escalator, then held her hands in the air when she saw the guns.

"We have sick kids up here!" she shouted. "We have dehydrated kids! One kid with sickle cell!"

Another storm victim, Cory Williams, 50, a respiratory therapist spending his third day at the convention center, greeted the troops as they came up the stairs.

t r u t h o u t - Met by Despair, Not Violence

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