September 26, 2005
Dealing with despair
Combat stress expected among troops in relief effort
By Joseph R. Chenelly
Times staff writer
Troops on duty in New Orleans and other areas stricken by Hurricane Katrina have come under fire. They’ve been forced to raise their weapons in self-defense.
And just about every soldier is seeing incredible loss of life and property.
National Guard leaders already recognize this mission will likely bring about combat stress.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Charles Warren of the Texas Air Guard’s 147th Security Squadron said the stress he is experiencing here is different than what he felt in Iraq.
“I sympathize more for these people because they’re Americans,” Warren said of the tens of thousands of flood victims waiting at the Superdome on Sept. 2 to be evacuated to Houston. “They have nowhere to go, so they’re defecating on themselves, handing babies over barricades to try to get their child out of these conditions.”
The New Orleans police department has reported 200 of its officers may have walked off the job and two committed suicide after seeing their city torn apart. The department said the stress for its officers has been especially intense because the disaster zone is also their hometown. The Louisiana National Guard is composed of many New Orleans residents.
As of press time, the state believes there have been no desertions or suicide attempts by Louisiana troops. But Army chaplains and senior noncommissioned officers are watching troops closely.
“The conditions are obviously unfavorable,” said 1st Sgt. Brent Burnett of Louisiana’s B Company, 527th Engineer Battalion. “Our guys have been shot at. And they’ve seen some pretty rough stuff.
“Right now we have an important mission, but I’m talking to them, making sure they’re OK,” he said. “They’re holding up fine, but sometimes things like this take a little bit for it to hit them.”
A visibly shaken Sgt. Dennis Gee stood near the helicopter pad outside the Superdome on Sept. 2. He is an Army medic who had just returned from Tulane Medical Center in the city. He saw every type of ailment he could imagine, he said.
He was especially upset that a patient he was trying to evacuate died because there was no way to get the kidney dialysis he needed.
Spc. Vincent Lopezvito of the Louisiana Guard’s C Company, 769th Engineer Battalion, sat atop a city trash can Aug. 31 on a flooded New Orleans street corner. Hanging his head, he talked with other soldiers about a man he had performed first aid on the day before. The civilian had been shot in the face, apparently during an argument over a flashlight. The soldier didn’t know whether the man survived.
Lt. Col. Mike Taylor, command chaplain for the 45th Field Artillery Brigade, which deployed to New Orleans, said he is preparing to offer counseling to guardsmen who ask for it or are referred by their command.
Soldiers who need to talk about their experiences are encouraged to speak with a chaplain, said Maj. Steven Mark Jones, an instructor in the chaplain officer basic course at Fort Jackson, S.C.
Once units return from the relief and security duties, they will need a safe place to discuss what they did and saw.
Jones said unit chaplains, commanders and NCOs will need to observe their soldiers and identify those who have trouble making the transition back to day-to-day life.
“Soldiers will come back to homes that are still intact, to families who are complaining about gas prices and little things that mean nothing in New Orleans and Mississippi right now,” he said.
“Many will have survivor’s guilt, and that is something that needs to be addressed.”
Joseph R. Chenelly covers the Army.