The last time these Louisiana National Guardsmen were in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina left many of them homeless. Now the…

Five years later.
Aug. 17 2010 1:17 PM

In Baghdad With the Louisiana National Guard

The last time these guardsmen were in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina left many of them homeless. Now the oil spill is threatening their livelihoods.

Also in Slate, read about the environmental impacts of Katrina, five years later. Read our complete coverage of Katrina from 2005.

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Seven thousand miles away in Baghdad, the mental-health professionals and chaplains of the 256th Infantry Brigade are also feeling the effects of the BP slick. "I can tell you for sure that our Louisiana soldiers are stressed to the max right now," says Chaplain Paul Polk from his office at Hope Chapel, where a poster of a grenade hangs in the waiting room with a "Take a Number" note tied to its pin. "I've seen a lot of guys who are very concerned about the future of the Gulf Coast, plain and simple; their livelihoods depend on it. I try to provide a listening ear and relieve some of the stress, but what can I really do?" Polk takes a deep breath. "Imagine you're deployed in a combat zone, and then you watch the news about how the spill is devastating your community and the local wildlife and have to wonder if you're still gonna have a job waiting for you when you get home—well, that's more than some of our guys can bear. … They want to know: How long will the waters be unfishable? How will our guys in related industries take care of their families?"

Even before the arrival of the Saintsations pep squad, Sgt. Scaruffi's chow hall and the entire JVB hotel has been a place for the unit's southern Louisianans to ask these sorts of questions, and also to escape them. Based in one of Saddam Hussein's former hunting palaces, with opulent marble floors and chandeliers, the JVB caters to hundreds of celebrities, politicians, and high-ranking military officers each year, from Vice President Joe Biden to actor James Gandolfini.

The front desk is run by a group of disarmingly cheerful musicians from the Louisiana National Guard's 156th Army Band—a piccolo-playing geometry teacher; a band conductor who gleefully presides over a cupful of "Ragin' Cajun" pencils; a talented young pianist from Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La., who recently won Camp Victory's Battle of the Bands. This is the first time the band has been shipped off to a combat zone since World War II, and many of its members had previously assumed their job was nondeployable. The news only began to sink in when the musicians attended a pre-deployment training at New Orleans' luxury Roosevelt Hotel in such exotic combat skills as "telephone etiquette," "table service and housekeeping," and "customer service strategies." The reality sunk in even deeper this summer, when one of the band's members committed suicide in the Green Zone just weeks after another Louisiana National Guardsman from the same high school in Ouachita Parish died from a vehicle rollover in Al Diwaniyah.

Now, as the band and much of the rest of the JVB staff—cooks, contracting officers, security—begin returning home this month, they're hoping to find their state's shoreline something like they left it. "I can't imagine anyone who won't be affected, though," says 1st Sgt. Bryan David, who works for a company that flies oilmen out to offshore rigs. "Everyone from the southern part of the state has family in the oil business or supporting the oil business. Everyone."

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If the unit's coastal soldiers have one thing going for them, it's the trademark resilience that's carried them through four major hurricanes and two combat tours in the past half-decade. A pamphlet called "What Is a Cajun?" found in the JVB's lobby explains: "A true Cajun … is a man of tolerance who will let the world go its way, if the world will let him go his."

These days, even the guardsmen from up north seem possessed of a certain old-school Acadian nonchalance. Some count down their last few nights in Baghdad on the veranda, hitting golf balls toward the mission headquarters beside a sign that reads, "AINT YOUR MOMMA'S HOUSE PICK UP YOUR CIGARETTE BUTTS." Others converse by Skype with their wives and husbands about what they plan to do when they get home ("Destroy my liver!") or vent about the BP crisis online ("We can put a man on the moon, but we can't plug an oil spill?").

And Sgt. 1st Class James Scaruffi? He continues to do his thing with frozen shrimp, daydreaming all the while about what he'll cook up with the real ones when he gets home. "Shrimp po-boy, shrimp jambalaya … I can pretty much make it all," he explains. "If there's any left by the time we get home." And if not, BP beware. "If you cross a Cajun," says the pamphlet in the JVB lobby, "he'll give you the back of his hand or the toe of his boot."

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Sarah Stillman is the first recipient of the NYU Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute's Reporting Award.