I volunteered, so here I am in New Orleans.
I’m a California Air National Guard chaplain, but I’m assigned to the 1/179 Infantry Battalion, 45th Brigade of the Oklahoma Army National Guard.
So far, it’s been a zoo — literally. We’re encamped outside the Audubon Zoo. And yes, all the animals are well.
I call our camp Noah’s Ark, but the Army calls it Battalion Headquarters. From here the commander issues missions to subordinate units to evacuate residents who have been previously unable or unwilling to leave. Unfortunately not everyone got help in time; sometimes soldiers discover bodies of people whose 911 calls were answered too late.
Each mission is a dirty, dangerous and often gruesome job that soldiers carry out with the seriousness of combat.
Driving the flooded streets was like four-wheeling in sewer water. The water was dark enough to hide large objects and the smell could easily trigger a gag reflex. When the water became deep enough, it flooded the floorboard of our Humvee and we would lift our feet as soldiers made nervous jokes about bubonic plague.
Our orders were to enter only homes with open doors and to check for survivors; locking the doors as we left. The irony was that we came offering help, but we carried guns.
Yet the guns were needed. The storm had given a lot of people a chance to settle scores. Criminals settled scores with police officers, neighbors settled scores with crack houses, and brother rose up against brother.
Sgt. Paul Jump was my chaplain assistant and was to protect me. A 6-foot-4 member of the Osage Tribe, Sgt. Jump carried an M-4 rifle and seemed willing to use it. Fortunately the mission was uneventful — except for the dogs we occasionally fed along the streets.
Sunday I conducted my first worship service with about 30 people, including some zoo staff. During the service I asked parishioners: “What has been the hardest thing about our humanitarian mission?”
Most of the soldiers talked about the separation from families or the heat. But, some soldiers talked about going into the community wearing their masks and finding homes that were tragically divided into rich and poor — with the poor getting the roughest deal.
When it came time for me to preach, I was still wondering what I would talk about. Here I was wearing a camouflage uniform. There was a part of me that wanted to blend in with the surrounding plants.
I looked out at the troops — many hadn’t managed a bath in days. I knew they were hot, tired and continually thirsty. And I began reading from Psalm 69:1. “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in the miry depths.”
I told them that this Psalm had been the prayer of New Orleans and they’d been sent in an answer to that prayer. Then I called these infantrymen something I suspect they have never been called.
“You are sacred,” I told them. “In the midst of driving about in the black water, gagging on fumes from who-knows-what, you are doing a sacred task. You are rescuing the perishing.”
Being the answer to someone’s prayer is a lot of responsibility, but from what I can see, I want to assure you, the 45th Infantry Brigade is up to the task.