Night Patrol With The Vermont National Guard: In The Shadow of Katrina and Iraq
By David Van Deusen
Jefferson Parish, LA – The Vermont National Guard has been distributing food and patrolling neighborhoods in Jefferson Parish for the last week. On Tuesday, September 6th, I joined them on their first night patrol. At six PM, still light, I boarded a truck with ten solders from the 1st of the 86th Field Artillery. All of these men served eleven months in Iraq. They returned home February 29th, 2005.
As we left the gates of their head quarters, an old middle school, the solders loaded their M-16s. They had no more idea of what to expect than I did. All we knew were the images of chaos that flashed upon the nightly news several days before.
We rolled through the streets of Jefferson Parish. Katrina’s devastating power was evident. Telephone poles were snapped like toothpicks. Roofs we ripped from their beams. Electricity was still out. One gas station was simply flattened. I had never saw anything like it. A soldier turned towards me and said, Better than we seen in Baghdad….
We reached the sector assigned to the unit. Holms Avenue. The truck drove through the area to get a feel for it. One house had the entire second floor wall torn from it’s framing. I could see into what was once a person’s bedroom. It looked like a giant, postmodern dollhouse, made to appear in a war zone.
Four Guardsmen were dropped off at one end of the street. Four more at the other. I departed with the later. The two groups were maybe three miles apart. The plan was for them to slowly walk towards each other, with the truck patrolling in-between.
As we walked Sergeant Cramdon, the squad leader, said how strange this felt. All the open windows, all the alleyways; this would be a very dangerous situation back in Baghdad. Maybe subconsciously, maybe through intent, the group fell into military formation. It was the first time this unit was activated for such duty since Iraq. We continued on.
The subtropical heat barred down on us. I asked how they were doing in their heavy fatigues. Every one of us was over [for eleven months]. We went on the last deployment to Iraq. I’m used to the heat. The humidity is another story, said Sergeant Cramdon.
Moving into the side streets of what appeared to be a working class neighborhood of small ranch houses, it was not long before we heard gunshots. They came in groups of four and five. Fifteen shots in all, emanating from a few blocks away. The squad leader called for back up. When the truck arrived they moved towards the shots. A few residents, those who refused to evacuate, directed the Guard towards the perceived source. I was given the advice that If we get shot at, find cover wherever you can.
The search lasted a good twenty minutes. No shooter was found. Still, walking through the neighborhood, the solders were busy. A number of people standing in their driveways would ask, When is the power coming on? Will you be patrolling all night? How are things going? For most, this was the first sign of a government response to the destruction since the storm hit, nearly a week before. The Vermonters would stop, answer what they could, remind them of the encroaching curfew, and then be on their way.
As night drew near the two groups converged. The commanding officer decided that they would stay in and about the truck, together, for the remainder of the shift. They would patrol this way, for safety, until the sun came up.
Standing around the truck, we talked to pass the time. I asked what they thought about this assignment. Sergeant Cramdon answered, [Compared with the Regular Army] We’re more public friendly. This was a telling statement as it was rumored that tens of thousands of Regular Army troops were heading for the New Orleans area. The conversation quickly headed to their experiences in Iraq, and how the Vermont Guard approached their duties there.
Oversees they were assigned to protect military convoys passing through the Baghdad area. This is one of the most dangerous assignments in the occupied region.
Sergeant Scott, who in the civilian world works as an auto mechanic in Burlington, stated, These guys [some Regular Army] don’t understand. You don’t want to piss off the people who live in your back yard. Another Soldier added, One guy got shot at the north gate there [in Iraq], and two days later we got mortared.
I asked if there was a cause and effect’ regarding their conduct in Baghdad. Exactly, responded Sergeant Cramdon. You just want to keep the peace in the community. Let them know your there, but let them know your not there When we were over in Iraq we were never proactive, we were always reactive, said Cramdon.
Sergeant Scott continued, Like two days after we got mortared, [the sheik] had heads at the front gate. Cramdon continued, The sheik had somebody’s head… Cause he knew that there’d be repercussions to whoever was mortaring the base so he came up with their heads.
I asked them what is the real situation in Iraq, how is the war progressing? Scott responded, There’s the people who like us, the people that don’t like us but don’t fuck with us, and then there’s the people who fuck with us.
Another soldier stated, a lot of the insurgents pulled out of Falujah [when we attacked it]. Soon as we go into Falujah all hell broke loose in Baghdad. Scott inserted, In Ramadi too. That’s where our guys are being hit hard now From what I understand we’re getting beat up pretty good over there too. We’re loosing a lot of Vermonters over there now.
All talked of having to fire their weapons regularly. One soldier, helmet pushed forward, nearly sleeping, said he only fired his gun once in eleven months. The others looked at him. Some with near disbelief. Still leaning back, hardly bothering to open his eyes he said, We threw rocks when other people were shooting bullets.
Rocks don’t do to good when they’re shooting bullets at you, argued Sergeant Cramdon. I thought of the Palestinian youth who throw stones as the Israeli Army. Sergeant Cramdon was right; their fate is often death.
The stone thrower answered, We [his unit] didn’t get shot at.
You didn’t get shot at? I can’t believe it. That’s unbelievable, countered Cramdon. We all were getting fucking plowed every day Thirteen days straight we got hit.
I foolishly pointed out the obvious and said that it must have been stressful. Sergeant Cramdon pardoned my flair for the obvious and answered, That’s the biggest question I got when we came back. It must have been stressful.’ To be quite honest with you, I slept better on nights that we came back that we got hit because you leave the wire and it’s all bottled up in you. Stress and everything, you know. So when you get hit you start firing back and all the stress that you had built up in you comes out. I slept like a baby on the nights when we got hit.
As the night wore on, there was little to do but maintain vigilance, smoke cigarettes, and talk. I looked up and noticed the stars. I thought how ironic it was that many local residents were seeing the beauty of the stars for the first time in their lives thanks only to this sea of destruction. The moment of reflection did not last long. The conversation again became gravely serious. Again recollections of Baghdad filled the space.
[In Iraq we’d see] kids taking tires off of burning trucks. Tires would be on fire and they’d be rolling them down the road, said Cramdon. Pissing fucking fuel all over the ground They’d be bare foot running in there trying to get what they could, added Scott.
Sergeant Cramdon continued, We got hit one time under 51 Alpha. It swept the whole underside of a trailer out. Flames everywhere. This truck was blazing. And they [kids] had the back of that [trailer] open, unloading it MSR was two miles down the road, and that truck was half unloaded by the time that MSR patrol got there. A soldier proclaimed, Any thieves or anything around here, they got nothing on those Iraqis.
Intermittently throughout the night we would board the truck and drive up and down Holms avenue. Flashlights would keep track of the passing landscape. From Holms we could see the raised highway, 90, which lead over the Mississippi Bridge into New Orleans.
Looking at the underpass just outside the unit’s area of patrol, Sergeant Cramdon stated, [In Iraq] when you drove by they used to blow them [improvised explosives] up head level at you. At this bridge, 51 Alpha, is where a lot of shit hit the fan. Right in-between my two Humvees, I was in the middle, and they blew it up right in-between and missed everybody. I don’t know how they missed everybody, but they missed everybody. Unbelievable. Right at head level too. A lot of it over there was just luck. A lot of people were unlucky, a lot of people were very lucky
A different Guardsman discussed his experience. It was ok when you got passed the bridge, you know. Me being a driver and having a freakin’ [explosive] go off and having my driver side door blown open and having stuff flying out, it kinda scarred the shit out of me They couldn’t really prepare us for it [in training]. You kinda learned as you went.
Sergeant Cramdon went on to discuss other aspects of convoys in Iraq, You’ll be driving down the road and these fuckers don’t want to wait for you behind the convoy. You’re doing sixty mile per hour in the convoy, but they want to do sixty-five, seventy. They’ll get into the oncoming lane and just play chicken all the way down the road. And then you’ll just see it. WHAM! Multi-car pile up cause he hit another car head on, there had to be fourteen-fifteen dead people there [Including] a dead infant.
I thought it was a doll. Two guys came running up. Picked it up. It was a baby. Just jello mutilated, said another soldier.
Much of the night was spent speaking of war. When I asked what it was like coming home, one Guardsman, who will remain unnamed recalled, When I came back, I was having some issues with not being able to calm down. I was wound up all the time. Maybe three or four times I had slight anxiety attacks. I’d have to get up and walk around, and calm myself down. I went into the doctor cause one day my heart was flipping out, shit like that. He went on, so I went to my doctor and he [said] it seems you got a little bit of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder going on. And it’s not like I’m depressed, or suicidal or anything, I’m just wound up, you know? I don’t know if you’ve heard of the drug zoloft or what not, but that shits expensive.
Did the military pay for it? I asked.
I went to my regular doctor and they’re not VA certified, so I went to the VA to go get it coved through the Veterans Administration, and they don’t buy name brand drugs, they use generic shit. The shit that they gave me makes me sick. Makes me want to throw up. So I kind of stopped taking it.
Another soldier interjected, I haven’t hardly slept since we’ve been back
The night eventually grew into morning. As the six o’clock hour again approached, we headed back towards the base. I asked when is the soonest the unit can be ordered back to Iraq?
February, came the reply. Someone questioned, Does this deployment extend that? Sergeant Cramdon answered, No, this is [a] state [mission]. Shit, said another.
If it were a federally directed mission, their likely re-deployment to Iraq would be pushed back. One Weekend a Month. My ass.
One soldier announced, Fuck that. I’m not going back. Another answered, You’ll have to if they call you up. It was left at that.
I inquired, How long will the war last? How long do you think it will go on for? Many answered Forever. Others nodded in agreement.
As we pulled into the HQ, the officer gave the order to unload their weapons.
All Weapons are cleared.
I asked how long they would be deployed in Louisiana? A soldier replied, no Idea. Until they tell us to go home.
* David Van Deusen is a member of the National Writers Union, UAW Loal 1981. He recently spent five days in the New Orleans area. He is a resident of Moretown, Vermont.