For some soldiers back from Iraq and now helping the Hurricane Katrina recovery effort, serving in the Middle East doesn’t seem so bad after all.
“We had it made in Iraq, absolutely had it made,” said Col. Brad MacNealy of the Mississippi National Guard, who spent a year commanding the 185th Aviation Brigade’s 134 helicopters there.
“In Iraq, we had TV, communication, sleeping quarters, showers,” MacNealy said Sunday. “Here, these people haven’t had a shower. They’re using baby wipes. They can’t use cell phones... The year we spent in Iraq, the creature comforts were fantastic. I mean, people were complaining there because they didn’t have exercise equipment.”
The group is now flying 42 choppers out of the Trent Lott National Guard Training Complex here, delivering food, water, ice, diapers and baby food to people stranded in the bayou.
Communication is a mess here, pilots say. Crews are flying into areas with chopper loads of bottled water and MRE’s — meals ready to eat — and finding supplies have already been delivered.
“If they say they’ve already got stuff, we just fly around until we find someone who needs it,” said pilot Michael Fair, a chief warrant officer with the Ohio National Guard.
The helicopter crews are given drop locations, then they’re on their own.
“There’s no communications out there. We don’t know much until we get on the ground,” said pilot Michael Bess, also of the Ohio National Guard. “If they’ve already got something, we just circle around the area looking for people who are stranded.”
MacNealy said planning for aid drops is intense and confusing because very few messages get from the outlying areas where folks are stranded with the base’s main operation center.
“In Iraq, we had to and did a lot more detailed planning because we were being shot at,” he said. “Here, it’s touch and go.”
Motivation is high
But one thing truly separates this mission from Iraq, where commanders are constantly giving “a lot of motivational speeches, slapping soldiers on the backs,” MacNealy added.
“I have never seen the morale any higher anywhere in the world. You don’t have to motivate anybody here. They know their mission. We’re here to help our neighbors,” he said. “Every time they go out and see a woman crying because she just got food and water for her children, they come back fired up.”
And troops here share at least one other thing in common with the stranded, hungry and thirsty masses.
“These guys are subsisting on the same rations we’re bringing out to the people,” said the Mississippi National Guard’s Col. Greg Kennedy. “Even so, as tough as it is, not one complaint, not one single complaint from anyone.”