By BRENDAN McKENNA Herald Staff | September 10,2005
BRENDAN McKENNA / RUTLAND HERALD
Vermont National Guard Sgt. Douglas Greig surveys signs in Gretna, La.
GRETNA, La. — Thursday night's mission for the Vermont National Guard members assisting the hurricane relief efforts highlighted the contrast in styles between the Vermont soldiers and local police and sheriffs.
By about 9 p.m., darkness had settled over the Guard's patrol areas and the third platoon was starting to settle into their checkpoints at the entrance to the Monterey Court neighborhood when a sheriff's cruiser and a pickup truck pulled up.
Two deputies were in the cruiser and another three or four were loaded into the truck.
The deputies asked the Guard how things were going. When the soldiers said it was boring, one deputy said "I guess we'll go make a run through there to see if we can stir some (stuff) up."
"They're going in in squad size. It looks like they're loading up," one Guardsman said as the deputies pulled forward about 50 yards to get ready to make their patrol.
The Guard prepared to spread out to catch anyone running from the deputies, but the next hour or so was quiet.
"They said they went back in there and kicked everybody's door in," said Sgt. Francis Estey of Arlington.
Staff Sgt. Eric Crammond said the police officers had a much harder attitude than the Guardsmen — understandable seeing what they had gone through in the first days after the disaster.
"They're talking the way we used to talk when we were in theater," he said, referring to the unit's recent deployment to Iraq. "They were in there the better part of an hour. (The residents) are pretty intimidated."
Sgt. Michael Scott noted how similar the missions for the Guardsmen seemed. Although the guardsmen haven't come under attack like they did in Iraq, the pace of duty is much the same, with men passing stories from the deployment to pass the time.
"It's a lot like it was over there," Scott said. "You just sit and sit and sit."
Several Guardsmen also said the peace and quiet they've experienced may have been a result of the Louisiana governor's remarks about their combat experience and orders to shoot to kill.
Third platoon was maintaining a checkpoint at the only entrance to the Monterey Court neighborhood, where other Guardsmen distributed food for the first time Tuesday.
Local police and sheriff's deputies had told the Guard about shots being fired in that neighborhood for three nights in a row before the Guardsmen arrived — and two murders in the month prior to the hurricane.
Estey arrived at the checkpoint after walking the rounds
"They're friendly back there," he said. "The kids just came out here and we told them we didn't care if they were riding their bikes in front of their houses, but they needed to be back there."
"They kept saying we were a lot nicer than the cops," he said. "One thing we did not see was any males. The only people we saw were women and children."
Spc. Michael Shepard of Winooski noted another detail about the neighborhood.
"All of the kids asked us if that's all we have for weapons," he said, hoisting his M-16 rifle and nodding towards the 9 mm pistol in a holster on his leg. "I was like, 'uh-oh.'"
A number of the Guard in third platoon reported police officers carrying weapons as large as an AT-4 — an anti-tank weapon and a successor to the bazooka.
Estey noted that Monterey Court is not a nice neighborhood, in spite of the rubber welcome mat someone left in the middle of the access road.
Walking through the area before sunset he pointed out signs of damage to homes and vehicles that obviously hadn't come from the hurricane.
"That window has bullet holes through there," he said. "And that van there, that (damage) was not from the hurricane. That was dragged there."
But despite the damage — from whatever cause — several residents of the neighborhood, which greets visitors with a sign warning them they are under 24-hour video surveillance at the request of the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office, were doggedly determined to stay.
"We've been here since the storm," said Charles Green, 48. "We did the hard time already. Now we're just waiting for the lights to come on."
With New Orleans instituting a mandatory evacuation Thursday, the Guard, across the river from the city, was worried about an influx of refugees and other, less welcome people.
"It's possible the bad guys, thugs and drug dealers may seek alternate living arrangements in our area," said Maj. Michael Papariello, the second-in-command of the Guard force. "They may come looking for weapons, vehicles, gas, cash or food."
So the third platoon of the 1st Battalion, 86th Field Artillery, was tasked with manning a checkpoint and patrols on Holmes Boulevard — near the first exit south of the Mississippi River across a major bridge.
"The bridge is Exit 10, our guys will be at Exit 9," Papariello said. "We don't know what to expect."
He added, "It's an expect-the-worst, hope-for-the-best kind of thing. … That's what we're here for: deterrence."
"There was no action (in the neighborhood) last night," Papariello said. "Was it a coincidence? Maybe."
Before the troops headed out for the night, some of Papariello's concerns were moderated.
"They closed that bridge I was worried about to foot and vehicle traffic," he said. "The evacuation plan is to move people east and west, not south."
He added, "Access to this parish was going to be closed tonight at 6 p.m. but they decided to keep it open another day. After that, I'm sure they'll let people out but they're not going to let anybody in."
The first squad of the platoon took up their positions at 6 p.m. — technically the time a mandatory curfew went into effect, but the Guard and local law enforcement were relaxed about the requirement until nightfall a few hours later.
The first few minutes at the checkpoint were hectic, with a flurry of cars passing through, many loaded up with their owners' possessions, people obviously heeding the evacuation recommendation for Jefferson Parish.
"We loaded up pretty much all we could with the time," said Idennis Holley, who was driving the middle van in a three-vehicle convoy fleeing the area.
Sgt. 1st Class Scott Woodard encountered the differing attitudes between military and police for the first time at the checkpoint.
"It looks like they're all packed," he said as one vehicle pulled up to the checkpoint. "They said they talked to the state police and they told them to haul (it)."
"Once they close everything up for good, the sheriff's department should be able to handle it," Woodard said. "If they can't, they probably couldn't before."
Contact Brendan McKenna at email@example.com.