By Debbie Stevenson
Killeen Daily Herald
Back just two days last week from training in Californias Mojave Desert, the 4th Infantry Divisions aviation crews got orders to leave for Hurricane Katrina-ravaged Louisiana.
Despite the quick turnaround and a looming yearlong deployment to Iraq, saving the lives of fellow Americans was a mission the soldiers couldnt get to fast enough, said Lt. Col. Michael J. Gawkins, a 4th Infantry pilot and the divisions task force commander.
When they heard there was an American crisis, we had more volunteers than we could take, Gawkins said. All the soldiers were very excited. They knew, everybody knew, they had a stake in saving American lives.
Within 36 hours, the 4th Infantrys aviation task force was assembled. Its 20 units headed south to Ryan Field Metropolitan Airport in Baton Rouge to set up an operations base.
The first day was spent scouting New Orleans in their Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters.
The people were stranded all over, on roofs, hospitals, anywhere there was high ground, Gawkins said.
Landing at the Superdome, Lt. Col. Jonathan Withington, the divisions spokesman, said the devastation was more than he had imagined.
I had never seen anything like that in the United States, he said. That was not the New Orleans I had in my mind.
Helicopters were everywhere. Gawkins said at least 200 military and civilian choppers were flying below 700 feet across the city searching for survivors.
Its just a credit to all the different services, Gawkins said. Everybody was really very safe over the city. I never saw an incident or issue. Its a credit to the civilian and military rotary training.
Once full, the aircraft would take the evacuees to Terminal B at New Orleans international airport where a medical triage was set up virtually overnight. The heavier Chinooks formed lines to the right of the terminal, often 20 in a row, to drop off their evacuees. The lighter Black Hawks, with fewer patients on board, lined up on the terminals left side for greater efficiency.
The helicopters were greeted by a mix of fear and relief by the stranded residents, many of whom had never seen a helicopter before.
A lot of times, they were yelling and screaming in the back, said Gawkins as the birds lifted off.
Gawkins said he will never forget how the pilots kept hunting for the third of three homes for the elderly. The first two homes had been found and evacuated. When the pilots finally tracked the third, 55 elderly residents were taken to safety.
It was the most fulfilling mission, Gawkins said.
The faces of two little girls will never be forgotten by Sgt. 1st Class Reginald Rogers. The public affairs noncommissioned officer for the aviation brigade, Rogers was on board one of the first 4th Infantry flights into the city.
On that day, the helicopter picked up several stranded and frightened children.
As the children boarded the aircraft, they had these looks on their faces like they were scared to death, Rogers said. During the 10-minute flight to the airport, Rogers comforted the two little girls and gave them water.
At the airport, the girls, now smiling, waved good-bye as the helicopter left.
They were cheerful. It really hit home with me, Rogers said. As a father, I will remember their faces.
The 4th Infantry soldiers have been told to expect to remain in Louisiana for at least 30 days.
For now, Withington said, the New Orleans mission, which has included dropping sandbags to plug the 17th Street levee breech, has not interfered with the units preparations to return to Iraq this fall.
Right now, we do not foresee any challenges to the deployment timeline, Withington said. It just speaks to the depth of the divisions training our ability to deploy this task force.
The division returned from Iraq in April 2004. Since then, it has regrouped, reorganized its aviation brigade and added a new combat brigade to its ranks. This summer, the brigades began training for another year in the Middle East that has included monthlong rotations to the National Training Center at Fort Irwin Calif.
Theyre tired, but extremely proud that they are making a difference, Gawkins said.
Contact Debbie Stevenson at email@example.com