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From Afghanistan To Louisiana

From Afghanistan to Louisiana

ETMC Athens’ chief tech experiences challenge of his life in hurricanes’ aftermath

By Toni Garrard Clay

Special Contributor

When Will Conley returned to work at ETMC Athens the last day of May, he had just spent a year in Afghanistan.

His tour under Operation Enduring Freedom, building roads and dodging rockets, was supposed to have been six months.

“We were glad to get him back,” said Richard Vasquez, director of radiology at the hospital. Conley, as the chief technician in the nuclear medicine department, is a key member of the radiology team.

But, as Mother Nature would have it, less than three months after his return to the department he helped build, Conley’s Louisiana Army National Guard unit was re-activated to help prepare for the arrival of a terrifying hurricane named Katrina.

Chief Tech Conley was once again Major Conley with the 528th Engineering Battalion.

After gathering Aug. 26 at Camp Beauregard in Pineville, La., Conley’s group was sent the next day, a Saturday, to New Orleans’ Superdome.

“We set up there with food, water and cots,” he said. “We got high-water vehicles ready to pick people up.”

Conley said based on past experience, they expected to be dealing with wind damage – clearing interstates and main roads of debris.

“We didn’t expect the levee system to break. The real costly damage came from the flooding.”

That Monday, during the early morning hours, the storm hit land. Soon after, the 17th Street Canal gave way and water rushed into the bowl-shaped city.

“It was a full-blown breach with 50 yards worth of levee system washed out,” recalled Conley. “My battalion was the lead on that repair. We sent out 15 five-ton dump trucks full of rock, dirt, clay, some debris. It took four hours to plug the hole. We were a quick fix to stop the massive bleeding, if you will.”

Once the gushing had been stymied, the corps of engineers brought in contractors to begin the rebuilding process.

While half of Conley’s group worked to stop the leak, the other half was busy “pulling people out.”

“As operations officer, I moved back and forth between the two,” he explained.

That was just Day One.

The next day, the unit began road clearance in Jefferson Parish, known as the gateway to New Orleans, and delivering food to the Morial Convention Center in New Orleans. The convention center, along with the Superdome, is now infamous as having become a cauldron of fiery tempers, violence, misery and filth in the days following Katrina’s arrival.

“There were thousands of people there by the second day. They trickled in for a week or week and a half before we got everyone out,” said Conley.

He shook his head when asked to describe people’s behavior.

“Half the people there were extremely grateful for what we were trying to do. They were drinking the water and eating the MREs (Meals Ready to Eat).

“Then there was the younger crowd. Many of them didn’t want water; they wanted Cokes. They didn’t like the MREs, even though it’s what we were eating.

“We had the same situation at Lake Charles when Rita hit.”

Less than a month after Katrina hit, as disaster workers were just beginning to get a sense of everything that needed to be done, Hurricane Rita slammed into refinery row in Texas and Louisiana with 120 mph winds and torrential rains.

“Everyone is focused on Katrina because of what it did to New Orleans,” said Conley, “but Rita did a lot more damage on the southwestern side of the state.”

Conley paused for a moment, leaning forward.

“There are towns gone,” he said. “I saw a bank vault standing where the building around it had disappeared.

“We worked with people every day who had lost everything. Everything.”

Conley said he and his men held on to that reality in an effort to keep things in perspective as they dealt with being “shot at and hated.”

In the wake of the devastation, lawlessness spread along with the black mold.

Members of Conley’s 225th Group were federalized and put on security post in addition to their engineering duties. Of the members of the 528th, 180 soldiers were assigned to security in New Orleans; 240 to working on the levee system.

Conley shakes his head at the things he’s seen and experienced in his native state.

“We assisted in arresting four New Orleans police officers for stealing Rolexes. … We had a couple of our guys shot at the Superdome. One was by a sniper outside the complex. The other was shot in the thigh when he tried to subdue a person inside the building. …

 “This has been the worst experience I’ve ever had,” said Conley solemnly. “It was horrible because you’ve got people you’re trying to protect. And these guys are shooting at us and stealing from their brothers and sisters. …

“You wouldn’t think humanity would slip so much. It was like the end of the world for these people, and they just went crazy.”

Conley said when it came to stealing, they focused on those taking electronics and jewelry and the like.

“We understood the people taking food and water. They needed it, and it was just going to go bad anyway.”

The living conditions for members of the 528th were spartan at first. The first week they slept on the ground, then moved to tents and cots. Only recently have they relocated to the naval base in Plaquemines Parish, a peninsula which juts out into the Gulf Coast and marks Louisiana’s most southeasterly tip.

Battalion members have repaired the levees there and repaired six miles of what was originally unimproved road leading to the parish’s all-important pumping station.

Along the way, Conley and his men have encountered more than just the debris left from two hurricanes.

“The alligators! Oh, my. Hundreds of them!” he said with a grin. “They don’t really bother you, but they’ll still scare the dickens out of you.”

Conley said his unit is under orders for a year of duty. But he’s hopeful, in light of the fact they had just returned from Afghanistan, that they will be home soon.

“The engineering mission we’ve been ordered to do has been completed,” he said. “I’m ready to get home and get back to work at the hospital.”

 

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