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Around Our Town...Heroes

Casper resident, Army journalist covers post-Katrina operations in LA

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12/01/2005 - by Jennifer Sardam

In the middle of New Orleans' Ninth Ward, one of many areas decimated by Hurricane Katrina, I raised my Nikon D1 camera and began to shoot rapidly. Sludge-covered cars with busted windows, some teetering atop others, littered the landscape amidst scattered masses of splintered boards that were once homes. The mud-coated sea of debris around me made it hard to believe I was still in my own country.

I am a military journalist, and my job was to document the hurricane relief efforts of Air and Army National Guard units in Louisiana. But the levels of destruction I saw there could never be fully conveyed to anyone through mere photographs or written accounts.

Notification of my deployment in late September took me by surprise. I was working at a conference in Jackson. A friend in my unit phoned to tell me we had to be at the Laramie armory, bags packed, the next Wednesday morning. My knowledge of the damage done by Katrina extended only to the devastating images I'd seen on major news networks, just distant clips of reality neatly framed in my TV. I was more concerned about looming project deadlines at work than natural disasters. I didn't expect to soon be standing in the wake of the hurricane, a world away from my home in Casper.

I knew one day I could be called to deploy somewhere. After almost 12 years service and participation in military exercises in countries as far away as Korea, this was my first real-world mission. It wasn't in a foreign culture across the ocean, as I would have expected, but right in our American backyard, where a four-hour flight from Rock Springs took me across hundreds of miles to help people just like you and me.

Our eight members, which made up most of Wyoming's 111th Press Camp Headquarters, Detachment 1, lived and worked on Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base New Orleans. In a crowded office inside the hangar, we quickly transformed daily notes and interviews into finalized stories to be sent to news organizations. It was a transition to adapt to Army living again, but it soon didn't faze me. I was too exhausted to care where I lay my head at night. We were part of something larger than life, and I was thrilled to use my journalistic skills on a more regular basis.

My previous concerns quickly paled in comparison to the tragedies I saw. I was initially frustrated when my civilian life was put on hold. But I met many survivors there who were starting over from nothing, far from home, or without a loved one or a place to call their own. My troubles seemed a world away from the soaring temperatures of this state that left clothing soaked in minutes. Being there had a way of stripping away the details to reveal what was important -- the currency of the unbreakable human spirit, of much greater value than any possession.

The most inspiring memories of my time there were my encounters with local residents. I can hardly describe the pride I felt when people thanked us for being there. It went beyond the customary southern hospitality. Restaurants offered soldiers free meals and generous discounts. At a local Chinese buffet, a lady approached our table to tell us that "99.9 percent of the population is glad you are here." Drivers honked and waved as we drove past in humvees. Goodwill was something tangible in the air. It was the first time I'd ever felt a direct impact in response to my deeds as an American soldier.

The welcoming attitudes and expressions of genuine kindness energized me and other soldiers with a strong sense of purpose.

Many of us will never forget the cafeteria ladies from Harry S. Truman Middle School in Marrero, La. They showed us their appreciation in the form of homemade red beans and rice, sweet squares of cornbread, gallons of iced sweet tea and tasty servings of coconut cake. We enjoyed their presence as much as they enjoyed ours. They spoiled us like long-lost grandchildren. And when it came time to return home to Wyoming, it wasn't easy to say our tearful goodbyes, as they embraced us with the sturdy hugs usually reserved for close family.

I traveled to communities inside and around New Orleans during my coverage of relief efforts to nearby Algiers, where medics from a California field artillery unit walked door-to-door offering free tetanus, and hepatitis A and B immunizations to residents; and to the Ninth Ward where I donned hip waders and a protective face mask to accompany a California first sergeant as he confronted the rubble of his grandmother's house for the first time.

I covered former President George Bush, Sr.'s visit to the base, and then two days later shook hands with the current President Bush, as I stood in a massive military crowd. He made a brief speech about our role in helping the state and victims of Katrina, and then thanked us, and waved as he boarded Air Force One.

Each day was different, surreal, and like nothing I had ever experienced before. I'd always wanted to visit New Orleans. I just never envisioned seeing it in this way. The city and its people left an indelible mark on me. It was difficult to return home and to leave what seems like such an unfinished situation. Friends, family and coworkers now casually ask, "So, how was New Orleans?" But it is difficult to fit this one month that felt like a year into the brevity of informal conversation.

These moments changed me. I feel I am now more keenly aware of the impermanence of life and how we should never take what matters most in our lives for granted. Most importantly to me, my deployment was an opportunity to affect and hopefully improve the lives of others in ways I never had before.

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