January 8, 2006
I am driving a hulking Expedition with a yellow ribbon on the bumper that says "Support Our Troops." In the grocery store parking lot, a man nods at me. I'm walking to the shopping carts when it hits me. He thinks I'm a kindred spirit in a country that is losing its nerve. I should turn back and tell him that the truck isn't mine, to clear up his misconception, but I don't.
For one week I find myself pulled into the war effort. I am in Florida to help my brother juggle single parenthood while his wife is serving in Iraq. Jim lives in a cul-de-sac community outside Tampa where the garage doors flip up every night at 6 and swallow incoming cars. His girls are 10 and 9. We spend the week eating Cocoa Pebbles and watching "The Incredibles." We hold dance parties in a bedroom where the stuffed animals are giving way to dreamy teen idol posters. We go to the mall and to the dentist. One night while I make dinner, the girls ride bikes outside in the waning winter dusk. It is a relief to be away from Washington, where politicians in marble hallways proclaim righteousness though they have never carried a canteen. Here in this linoleum kitchen, there is just a crayon calendar on the refrigerator marking the days until Mama comes home.
The yellow ribbon on the truck is the most outward sign of where this family stands on the war. And, of course, the quiet absence of Master Sgt. Angela Hull from the house.
In a breathless choreography of necessity, my brother cooks, cleans, folds mountains of laundry, carpools, grocery-shops, works full time as a technical writer for a defense contractor and tries to distract his daughters with amusing weekend activities like Celebration Station. He is trying to distract himself as much as the girls. "Worrying is not productive," he says. Normally, I would tease him about such a statement. I would make a case for worry and why it's only human. But I don't dare now. I am too in awe of his composure. One morning I go into his bedroom closet to get the laundry and I'm greeted by the scent of Angela's perfume, still on her clothes. I touch her blouses. How does he do it?
Angela is chief controller of the air-traffic control tower at Kirkuk Regional Air Base in northern Iraq. She did not graduate from the Air Force Academy or come from a long line of military heroes. Angela was 22 and working at the Stouffer's frozen-food factory in her home town of Gaffney, S.C., in 1987 when she rebelled against the smallness of her life and joined the Air Force. She advanced the slow, hard way, from refueling aircraft at 30,000 feet to learning air-traffic control to commanding towers. In Kirkuk, she supervises 10 controllers in the base tower while serving as first sergeant to a squadron of 48.
Angela never uses the macho language of war or the slogans favored by those who took us there. She works 16 hours a day, six days a week and sleeps in a pod. In a photo she sent home, I can see her office and a chalkboard where someone in her unit has written, "Sgt. Hull, take a day off!" She earns $54,000 a year.
I don't know where Angela stands on the war because we never talk about it. I remember once when Jim, Angela and the girls came to visit me in Washington not long after the United States invaded Iraq. It was a cold spring weekend, wet and gray, but we were excited tourists. We walked down to the White House to take pictures. Crossing through Lafayette Square, we came upon an antiwar protest. There were people shouting and jabbing signs in the air, and one of the sticks hit my niece, frightening her. I was furious at the protester, at the carelessness of his selfish passion. My brother, who is 6 feet 6 inches tall, wanted to slug the guy. Angela -- calm and strong Angela -- simply rounded us up and moved us along.
Jim says it's good to keep a routine. The week of my visit, the holiday lights blink in the darkened Florida balm. Palm fronds brush against the plastic snowmen and wise men propped up in the cool night grass. At the kitchen table, my nieces dream up Christmas lists to e-mail to their mother, as if she will trudge out into the sands of Iraq and find a Wal-Mart.
Jourdan is 10 and long-legged. My brother seems not to notice that she is wearing cocktail outfits to school. Jourdan is spending hours in front of the mirror, hypnotized by
her own reflection as Hilary Duff and Kelly Clarkson channel messages to her at ear-shattering decibels.
In the bedroom next door, childhood still reigns supreme. Chrislyn is barely 9 and a devout fan of SpongeBob and teddy bears that she names Zack and Champ. Chrislyn is as earnest and innocent as Jourdan is sophisticated and enterprising.
When Angela received her orders for Iraq last spring, my brother boiled down the situation this way: "There are bad people over there trying to hurt Americans and Iraqis," he said. "Mommy has special gear that keeps her safe." The girls were accustomed to Angela leaving for short stints but they knew this was different. In the way that children often seize on a grain of sand, they fixated on Angela's living quarters. "Will you sleep in a hard tent?" Chrislyn asked, her blue eyes clouded by worry. Angela promised that she would be sleeping in a very hard tent. On the morning of her departure, the girls went to school and Angela went to Iraq.
Routines. We wake at 6 each morning, eat our breakfast and get ready for school. Usually my brother drops the kids on his way to work but now I do it, watching the girls' colorful backpacks disappear in the sea of others. I ride around town in the truck with the yellow ribbon on the bumper. Jim says to check out the YMCA, a sprawling new facility for the sprawling new communities devouring the pastures. A woman on a stair climber is reading a book titled "What Would Jesus Eat?" We discuss Biblical dining habits and then I tell her that I'm from Washington. "State or D.C.?" she asks. A look of pity crosses her face. Quickly, I volunteer that I'm visiting my brother, whose wife is in Iraq. This wins her back.
All week, strange moments of charade occur. A neighbor across the street is waxing his car when he sees me coming out of the house. "Welcome home," he says, waving his cloth in the air. He has mistaken me for Angela. I'm just the sister, I say. I wonder if Angela's homecoming will be like this -- a friendly neighbor welcoming her back as if she's been away at a conference.
Her absence is banal and profound. She maintains a phantom presence over her motherless house. E-mails and digital photos zip back and forth. In one of the photos, Angela notices a lump on Jourdan's forehead. She and my brother discuss the lump, and it's decided that Jourdan needs to see a pediatrician.
On the morning of the appointment, my brother gulps down cereal while CNN reports that 10 Marines were killed outside Fallujah, blown up by a homemade explosive. Jim curses and says the insurgents are picking away at us with bombs set off with 25-cent oven timers. He lets the dog out. Pop-Tarts are toasting in the toaster. The first Hilary Duff song of the day is playing in a bedroom. I look at the TV, relieved not to hear the word Kirkuk.
Of all the postings Angela could have received, Kirkuk was among the least dangerous, but lately things have gotten testier. ("Sportier," as Angela says.) The 101st Airborne Assault Division arrived at the base in October and has been deftly thwarting rocket attacks ever since. For safety reasons, Angela has yet to venture off base. Explosions rumble the furniture in her office. I wonder what worries her most today -- the explosions or a small, shiny lump on the forehead of her 10-year-old.
I take Jourdan to the pediatrician's office. She sits on crinkly white paper in an exam room. A nurse practitioner named Miss Yvonne looks at the lump. Using a rubber hammer, she checks Jourdan's reflexes and then turns on a penlight and tells Jourdan to follow the beam with her eyes. "Tell me about these headaches you've been having," Miss Yvonne says.
"I think they're because I don't drink enough water, and I am growing at a really fast rate," Jourdan answers. Miss Yvonne finishes her exam. She doesn't think there is anything to worry about. The minute I'm outside the office, I call my brother at work, and I can hear him typing an e-mail to Angela as we speak.
It's mid-morning and we are late for school. We decide to stop at a convenience store on U.S. 301. We are not sticking to the routine. We go inside and peruse glossy teen magazines and the selection of snack cakes. The packaging is in Spanish because of all the Mexicans and Guatemalans who pick strawberries and tomatoes in the fields nearby. I share the sociology lesson with my niece. "Oh," she replies, feigning interest. She picks up a double-pack of coconut creme-filled snowballs. Next, a big Coke, her eyes wandering to meet mine as she reaches inside the cooler. Her mom's at war. What the hell.
School is an L-shaped set of flat buildings shaded by oaks. The office is in front. Jourdan and I stand there in the bright fluorescence with our sugar-crusted mouths. "See you at 3:30," I say.
My brother is three years younger than me. He watches NASCAR and trades barbecue tips with someone on the Internet named Jurassic Pork. He washes the truck and cuts the grass on Saturday afternoons. Order is very important, which is funny, because as a boy he was gangly and calamitous, with an uncombed thicket of blond hair. Once he slipped from a boardwalk into a swamp full of alligators. Another time, he lit the gas stove and, whoosh, he had two charred haystacks for eyebrows.
We grew up in rural central Florida, when flocks of white birds would fill the sky as they left the backs of cattle that stood in soggy pastures. Our father worked in citrus. He couldn't keep a job. After our mother decided to leave with us, I remember being so broke that we ate meat only once a week -- Sunday -- but what Jim remembers is how delicious Sunday dinners were, and that would be the difference between us our entire lives.
At 19, he joined the Air Force and saw the world, and now he is back beneath the dripping Spanish moss that shrouded our childhoods. His house is in a subdivision near the Alafia River in eastern Hillsborough County. The river is tannic and winding and beautiful but surrounded by subdivisions that keep hatching and expanding, beige on beige. One day I'm returning home with the girls and I pull into what I believe is our driveway. My nieces inform me that their house is in fact three doors down. "Do these houses all look alike?" I ask.
"Our light is different," my younger niece says.
My brother loves the stability and sameness of these communities, a clue that he has not forgotten everything from our childhood. In Oklahoma they lived on Altus Air Force Base in a windswept brick ranch house with brown carpet, and every night an anemic bugle would sound taps over loudspeakers. During a bad plains drought, my brother torched his and a neighbor's lawns during a barbecue mishap. Three Halloweens ago in Virginia, in a neighborhood of Special Forces, Navy and Air Force members, I remember all the children flying around the cul-de-sac in vampire and Shrek costumes as their dads prepared for the invasion of Iraq. The night was starry and perfect, for these children.
Now, Angela is there. Patience, President Bush says on the news, patience. Stay the course. His twin daughters are about the same age that Angela was when she was working at the Stouffer's frozen-food factory and decided to enlist because good jobs were scarce in Gaffney, S.C. Now, Angela is high in a tower over the northern desert of Iraq, watching the red trails of rockets flare off in the distance. Patience, Angela, patience.
It is nearly bedtime. My brother turns off the TV. The sliding glass door is open and he pulls it closed, the small click of a lock echoing between us. One last time for the night, he goes to the computer to see if there is any news from Angela.
"Hey, baby," my brother shouts into the phone on my last Saturday afternoon. Knowing it's their mother, the girls come running.
"Mama," Chrislyn says, "I got a new bear."
Jourdan shares with her mother a dark tale from "Chicken Soup for the Preteen Soul." It has come to Angela's attention, through more digital photos, that Jourdan is wearing blue eye shadow to school, and a mother-daughter conversation follows.
My brother gets back on the line, and the kids start arguing. He cups his hand over the phone and yells at them sharply, drawing a rebuke from Angela.
"Dammit, Ang," Jim says, "I'm here with them 24-7 and you're in the peace and quiet."
We have to laugh at that one.
We decide to take a walk on the nature trail around the subdivision. Frogs grunt from the sludge of the creek, like kettledrums sounding off from the depths of the soupy algae. Jim tells the girls to stay on the paved trail. I whisper to him, "When we were kids, we played hopscotch over rattlesnake nests."
The sky is obscured by palms and oaks; it feels as if we are alone in Florida's last forest, until we hear the rush of the nearby interstate, cleverly hidden by landscaping. The girls race ahead. I have told them to bring their swimming suits. The subdivision has a pool, and though it is unheated, the gate is unlocked. We change into our suits. No one is saying the obvious, that the water is cold and that Angela would never allow this. But Angela is not here. We leap into the pool, cannonballs and jackknives. With chattering teeth, we make a pact never to tell Angela we went swimming in December.
We are warm and dry by the time we eat dinner. The girls sit at the kitchen table to write letters to their mother. Chrislyn picks up a pencil and stares out the window. A dreamer and sensitive soul, like her father when he was a boy. She looks down at her blank paper and begins. Dear Mom: If you read this carefully, you might actually hear my voice.
Since the war began I have read the U.S. casualty lists published in newspapers. When the photos of the dead are published in newspapers, I study the faces that are laid out like yearbook photos filling the pages of an endless year. Every picture has its own story but no future. The brim of an olive cap shields the impish eyes of a young Marine, now gone. Why do the names of their home towns seem so poetic? Mineral Bluff, Ga. Spooner, Wis. Angelina, Tex. Mechanicsville, Iowa. Zanesville, Ohio. Evening Shade, Ark. Valentine, Neb. When I see these photos, I imagine the knock on the door.
My brother never reads these lists. He never looks at the photos. Seeking out memorials is for those of us who live around the edges. Instead, Jim stands over his girls as they say their bedtime prayers, the same singsong prayers they have repeated since they could talk, about grandmas, papas, Todd their cat and baby Jesus, with one new addendum to their pajama pleadings. "Please keep Mama safe."
A Company Town on the Mississippi
January 22, 2006
A cap pulled over his blue eyes, David Bachemin crunches across the gravel toward his front door. Bachemin used to have a porch where he would take off his boots after a 12-hour shift at the Domino Sugar refinery. A brick house where his old black Lab could wander from room to room, and his wife of 38 years could make coffee in a kitchen with actual counters.
Now Bachemin and his family live in a trailer on the grounds of the refinery, surrounded by 210 other employees who also lost their homes in Hurricane Katrina. In a grand social experiment, Domino is overseeing a village of 700 residents, evoking a an old-fashioned company town.
The encampment is Dickensian: rows of aluminum trailers dwarfed by a 13-story refinery blowing steam from boilers on the banks of the Mississippi River. Each morning at 5, Bachemin crawls out of his bunk and joins the other men on their 100-yard walk to work.
"We fish together, we hunt together, we drink together, and now out here in these trailers, we live together," says Bachemin, a 56-year-old mechanic supervisor.
With the gallows humor of the shipwrecked, they call this place "Chateau Domino."
The refinery is in St. Bernard Parish, a predominantly white and working-class community of 65,000 east of New Orleans, which suffered the hurricane's most thorough destruction. Water swallowed nearly every home, business and government office. Five months later, marsh grass grows inside abandoned houses, and a shrimp trawler is still beached in a subdivision. One school is functioning, but no grocery store has reopened; only a couple of honky-tonk bars near the oil refineries and a handful of restaurants serving plate lunches in their parking lots.
Yet inside the gates of Domino, the amenities multiply: electricity, water and a laundromat. A school bus arrives each morning for the children. Last week, Domino started publishing a newsletter for its residents.
After the hurricane, Domino needed to keep its place as the nation's largest cane sugar refining company, and needed its workforce to do it. "We are back to the days when the little towns were built up around manufacturing," says Pete Maraia, Domino's plant manager. "This the nucleus of how you rebuild a community."
An oddity of the post-Katrina landscape in Louisiana is that thousands of workers displaced by the storm are living in trailer parks set up by their corporations. Union Carbide, Murphy Oil and Exxon Mobil have set up encampments to get their workforces going again. The Folgers roasting facility in New Orleans set up 150 trailers but only for employees. Domino decided to house both employees and families.
Bright curtains and statues of the Virgin Mary recovered from wrecked yards cheer up the surroundings, but there's no escape from waking up each morning in a 28-foot trailer surrounded by chain-link fence in the din of a sugar factory. About 240 of Domino's 326 employees lost everything in the storm.
"We're all walking on eggshells," Carol Bachemin says. "I am warm, so I am grateful. But I find myself so angry. This is what my life has become."
'We Know How to Survive'
The rules of the trailer park are simple: all dogs on leashes, alcohol in moderation, no loud music and all firearms must be licensed. The trailers are parked atop a thousand tons of white gravel spread in a field next to the refinery. The air is dust-choked from a fleet of backhoes and Bobcats laying sewer lines. Kids pedal around the beeping vehicles. The monotony is sometimes broken by the occasional crab boil or fish fry if the weather is warm.
Residents have tried to personalize their territories with barbecue grills, and some have built little patios from wooden sugar pallets. Freddie Meyer has gone all out: hanging plants, lawn ornaments, twinkling lights and a pair of regal lion statues more fit for guarding an estate than a 30-foot Palomino camper.
"We know how to survive out here," says Meyer, a 41-year-old wiry, gregarious native of the St. Bernard Parish shrimping town of Violet.
Inside his trailer are his wife and three kids, ages 17, 14 and 11. The hours of greatest comfort are when everyone is lying down asleep. But Meyer is not complaining. "We needed our jobs," he says, while the kids stand four feet away in the living room and the television blares. "Without our jobs, we can't live. This is a company. They want the plant running. The only way they can get the plant working is workers."
The effects of Domino Sugar's comeback reach beyond its gates. The 700 living in trailers are helping St. Bernard Parish kick-start its economy again. The children -- about 35 -- allow the school system to hire back a teacher. The chain of revival even includes a small deli near the refinery. Domino lent the owners of the Arabi Food Store a trailer so they could renovate the flooded deli and get back to delivering po' boys to the factory gates. "Domino was our biggest customer," says owner Debbie Smith, readying her store for a grand reopening. "And they need us."
Still, Domino managers acknowledge the fragility of what they have created.
"We know how to make damn good sugar," says Mickey Seither, vice president of operations. "We don't know a whole lot about running a trailer park."
'They are Fighters'
Built in 1909, the refinery is a red-brick colossus on the Mississippi, chugging and puffing 24 hours a day. Inside, the iron stairs are sticky from decades of sugar, sweat and steam. The oldest of Domino's four plants -- the others are in Baltimore, New York and California -- the refinery in St. Bernard Parish was processing 6.5 million pounds of sugar a day before the storm. About 75 different products were produced, packaged and shipped from the site. Domino pays an average wage of $17 an hour with benefits; most employees are men, and many have worked here for more than 20 years.
The bonds of loyalty to each other and to the company were tested with Katrina. Ten employees volunteered to stay inside the refinery to keep the electricity and pumps working during the storm, but they lost communication with the outside world. As St. Bernard Parish slipped underwater, the employees were trapped for several days.
When Maraia, the plant manager, returned, the refinery was in ruins. Motors and pumps were submerged, and water had flooded mammoth sugar sheds, one containing 32 million pounds of raw sugar that turned into a lake of syrup. Dozens of vehicles were buried under melting mountains of sugar. The wind had blown out 450 of the 2,200 refinery windows. Cleanup seemed impossible: There was no power to suction the water or lift the 10,000-pound motors from submersion, and most of Domino's workers had evacuated and were scattered across the country.
Domino's parent company is American Sugar Refining Inc., which is owned by Florida Crystals Corp., which has its headquarters near West Palm Beach, and a cooperative of sugar cane growers. The company leased a barge and docked it on the river behind the refinery. All Domino employees were kept on the payroll, but only 20 were brought back initially. Fighting mosquitoes and heat, the men worked 12-hour days using only diesel generators, brute strength and physics to hoist and lift submerged machinery. They slept and ate on the barge, earning time-and-a-half for every hour worked.
"They are fighters, in a good way," Maraia says. "I think they felt they were on a mission. They knew that if they wanted to live here again, they had to have a job here."
Maraia, a Brooklyn-born son of a spring maker who started with Domino in 1974, lived in another parish and says he felt guilty about not losing his own home. He tried to keep his workers focused on the task of rebuilding, but his wife warned him, "Watch what you say, Pete; don't give them too much hope."
Using its contacts in the Louisiana Department of Economic Development and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the company got 270 trailers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The first question was whether to allow families or just employees to live in them. Some Domino managers questioned the wisdom of becoming a landlord, but the company decided the workers would be happier -- and more productive -- with their spouses and kids there.
By early December, Domino was producing a small daily run of 3 million pounds of sugar, less than half its normal production but still a comeback.
The strained labor relations that plagued Domino throughout the 1990s faded in the face of the crisis, says Milton J. Carr Jr., who represents the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1101. "I guess you could say we are in a honeymoon period right now," says Carr, who has worked at Domino for 33 years. "All honeymoons end, but right now we are lucky to have our jobs."
But the stress is catching up. Nearly two dozen employees and family members interviewed for this story see evidence of anxiety, depression, weight loss and abusive drinking. "I am filled with rage," says one wife, who was referred to a psychiatrist by a doctor working out of the temporary medical trailers in St. Bernard Parish. Another woman says her husband is drinking "real heavy."
Last week, Domino stepped up its employee assistance plan to provide counselors. "Our biggest challenges are ahead of us," Maraia says.
'The Wives Lost All Their Stuff'
In the dark every morning, there is a quiet commute across the rocks to the refinery. Left behind in the trailers are the women, most of whom lost their jobs in the hurricane and now spend their days with cell phones pressed to their ears dealing with insurance adjustors, FEMA, the Small Business Administration and others. The nearest grocery store is an hour away, a trip necessitated every two or three days because the trailer refrigerators are so small.
"The men, the work was their life, they didn't lose that," says Carol Bachemin, smoking and drinking coffee in her trailer. "The wives lost all their stuff."
Inside another trailer, a woman uses a hair dryer on still-wet snapshots pulled from the wreckage of home.
And inside another: "I long for a bath, and a big bathtub," Kathy Sakowski says. "You miss all the little things in life. I miss washing my hair with real water pressure, fluffing it and drying it out. And where is my favorite pan? You think of things every day that you lost."
While their husbands work, some drive to their old neighborhoods 10 or 15 minutes away and gut their houses. Melissa Arbour has a red bleach burn on her arm from scrubbing walls. Sheri Meyer is sunburned from gutting hers. Wendy Miller bought rubber boots and cleared debris from her water-logged home. Then they come back to the trailers and make dinner.
"You are thankful you have a roof over your head," Lanette Labrosse says. "At the same time, you are cussing under your breath."
"Look at this," Labrosse says, pulling down the air filter in her trailer covered with gray silt. "We have to take this down and wash it all the time."
The air in St. Bernard Parish is an invisible galaxy of dust, spores and mold. Six out of 10 patients who visit the temporary medical trailers have respiratory problems, according to Paul Verrette, medical director of the Department of Homeland Security in the parish.
Nancy Bird, wife of a Domino worker, won't let her child live in the trailer park because of environmental concerns. Besides the air quality, Bird worries about soil contamination from an oil spill during the hurricane not far from the public school that has reopened.
"I don't understand the common sense of letting kids live here," says Bird, who lives elsewhere in Louisiana with her son while her husband stays in a Domino trailer.
But many have no choice.
One night after dinner, as a cold wind blows across the trailers, Freddie Meyer's daughter, Megan, 11, and Devin LaChapelle, 12, are kicking rocks with their sneakers. "I can describe this place in three words," Devin says. "Dusty, dirty and boring. It's not normal."
"It's not home," Megan says.
As the refinery's engines grind above them, Devin and Megan walk along the fence and across the street to the levee. The lights of New Orleans burn across the river. The kids trade evacuation stories. Megan says that when they got back to her house, her parakeet was dead and his head was sticking up through the top of the cage. "He was trying to breathe while the water came up," she says.
Devin evacuated to New Mexico. "The people gave us clothes," he says.
They shiver in silence, then turn back to the trailers.
'We Are Close-Knit'
On the fourth floor of the refinery, the mechanics stand near the windows on a smoke break. Meyer and Wayne Dear glisten with sweat. Then it's back to the darkness of the machinery, where the No. 2 Syrup Pumping Pot and huge centrifuges that spin the water from the raw sugar groan and wheeze.
The sour smell of fermented sugar still lingers. Raw sugar is brought in from Texas or Louisiana and refined here: washed, purified, spun, dried and emerging in snowy crystals that fill 2,000-pound totes bound for Kellogg or 5-pound packages bound for Wal-Mart. With storm-damaged machinery, Domino is only able to produce half its product run. New mechanical palletizers have not come in yet, so sugar is loaded onto pallets by hand, slowly, rhythmically, in a pace the workers calibrate to help them last eight hours.
Meyer, Dear and another mechanic with "Catfish" on his hard hat spend the morning fixing a broken motor reducer. They kneel on greasy cardboard as they use two-foot wrenches and heavy mallets to take apart the reducer. Three of them work together, one heaving, the other turning, no one talking unless a direction is shouted above the noise of the machinery.
"We are close-knit," says Dear, as he walks down to the break room for lunch. "You gotta be to do this."
They are close even in the way they eat lunch, with Dear cutting up sausage and passing it down the long lunch table. Out of eight men in the room, seven lost their homes in the storm. Gerald Banks, who oils machinery, watched his 81-year-old father drown and spent three hours next to the body as he clung to a concrete stairway of a house that had washed away.
On break, the men talk about levees and corrupt politicians or what they found in their homes -- fish, dead dogs, car tires. Most had no flood insurance. Some of their homes were in the path of a 25,000-barrel oil spill from Murphy Oil that contaminated 1,800 homes. One man has received a $20,000 settlement; others are waiting to hear. But for most, there will be no windfall of insurance or oil money. Domino Sugar is the surest thing in their lives.
"It's rough," Meyer says. "I ain't gonna tell you no lie."
Their shift is from 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., but most work overtime because there's nothing else to do. The one exception is when a warm front passes through, and the marshes call.
On a sunny January afternoon, Meyer and David Bachemin clock off at 2:30 p.m., and by 2:37 they are hitching their boat trailers to trucks and headed for Delacroix Island. A two-lane road leads into the otherworldly devastation of fishing communities where trawlers are flipped over and branches are twisted in horrific sculptures.
They put in their boats and throttle out toward the horizon. These are the same waters that ruined their lives, but no one mentions the hurricane. The trout start piling up in the ice coolers. "I like to see that, my baby," Meyer shouts, as someone hauls in another.
Bachemin's cell phone echoes. It's his wife calling from the trailer, stressed out and fighting with their son. Bachemin tells her he'll be there soon.
In darkness, they drive back. Meyer pulls up to the fence surrounding the trailers. The white aluminum boxes are blasted by industrial lights and the refinery's glare. "Home, sweet home," Meyer says.
After Katrina, The Jazzman Plays On
January 30, 2006
NEW ORLEANS -- Peter Badie is in the kitchen, rummaging around in a drawer for a spoon. This isn't his kitchen. His kitchen was filled with 10 feet of water during Hurricane Katrina and likely awaits the wrecking ball. The 80-year-old jazz musician is homeless and temporarily living in a spare bedroom of a Creole cottage here in the Faubourg Marigny section of town. This is Sue Hall's kitchen.
"Sue Hall, where is that big pan?" Badie calls out.
"Peter, it's where you left it," says the voice from the other room.
Horns and clarinets drift from speakers above. Badie catches sight of his black sunglasses on the counter. He snatches them up and slips them into his shirt pocket, mindful of being a neat houseguest. "Sue Hall, I've got some fish cakes out here."
The hurricane has forced all sorts of unexpected arrangements, and Badie and Hall are just one unlikely Odd Couple living in the aftermath. Badie is an accomplished acoustic bass player who has toured with Lionel Hampton. Hall booked bands at the Palm Court Jazz Cafe. When she heard that Badie lost his home in the Lower Ninth Ward, she offered him a place to stay.
Hall has red hair and pearly skin. She was born in Kankakee, Ill. Chili pepper lights hang in her kitchen; Southern folk art and pink flamingos abound. In the middle of this bright whimsy is Badie, an austere modern jazzman, as cool as midnight itself, dealing with his homelessness, anger and unsure future.
This is life in New Orleans now: tenuous, with strange forgings and new beginnings. No one is saying how long the arrangement will last.
Badie -- known as "Chuck" -- has a salt-and-pepper soul patch. He is a widower and devout Catholic. His routine is simple. He rises mid-morning, says his prayers and then emerges from his borrowed room and makes a pot of grits. He is immensely proud, almost to the point of defiance. He recently returned a $4,000 check that the musicians union sent him by mistake.
At Hall's kitchen table, he reads the New Orleans Times-Picayune from cover to cover. "They say New Orleans will be back," Badie says. "Not for me it won't. I'm 80 years old."
Badie was born in 1925 in the Black Pearl section of Uptown in New Orleans. His father was a jazz saxophonist with the Eureka and Olympia brass bands. Badie didn't pick up music until he got out of the Navy in 1945 and used the GI Bill to enroll at the Grunewald School of Music in New Orleans, a beacon of progressivism in a city cleaved by race. "Whites were on the first floor and blacks were on the second floor; to me, that's integrated," Badie says.
Zoot Sims, Dizzy Gillespie -- Badie played with the best of them. Along with other black musicians, he helped found the A.F.O. (All For One) record label in 1961. But musicians were paid so little that Badie worked as a lunch waiter at the Royal Sonesta Hotel in the French Quarter for 15 years, making $500 a week, five times what he earned playing music.
Before the hurricane, he had a standing gig at the Palm Court, and he rolled up in style: punctual, a pressed shirt and a 1979 black Cadillac roomy enough to carry his bass in the back seat. He lived alone at his house on North Johnson Street. Other musicians die in rental apartments, but Badie had his house.
Now he sits in Hall's kitchen, holding a letter from his homeowner's insurance company, typed with the words "No Compensation."
"Not one quarter," he says, smoldering.
Five months after the storm, Badie still drives to his house every day and stares at it. The mysteries of his losses plague him. "I had six suits," he says. "I'm talking about suits. Not that mix-'n'-match jive. Six suits. Now, where did they go?"
He was wise enough to store his two basses on the second floor of the Palm Court before the storm, saving them from ruin. He momentarily forgets his troubles when describing his 1946 Epiphone. "It's got a sound, baby, you can hear around the corner," he says. "People said, 'Chuck, don't ever sell it.' Cats would snap it up in a second. I did a lot of records with that." "The Man I Love," "A Change Is Gonna Come." One of the basses is stretched out across Hall's living room. Who knows where it will finally rest. Badie has been looking into the Habitat for Humanity "musicians' village" that singer Harry Connick Jr. and saxophone player Branford Marsalis are trying to create for Louisiana musicians left homeless by the storm.
For now, this pink cottage is home. Badie shows his appreciation by cooking: breaded pork chops, cabbage, neck bones, turnips and carrots, and oyster dressing. "Oyster dressing?" Badie says. "Oh, that will kick you. See, I re-boil them crawfish heads and get that stock ."
The phone rings again, and Hall comes into the kitchen. She's been trying to find a trombonist for a gig. The hurricane scattered New Orleans jazz musicians across the country; two-thirds have still not returned. "I must have called 10 trombone players," Hall says.
Badie frets over what to wear to the gig. His suits are gone. He goes into his bedroom to make a call about finding a new white shirt.
Hall drops her voice and whispers, "He's old school, the last of a generation. A man of integrity."
When Badie takes his place on stage at the Palm Court the next night, he reveals nothing of his troubles. The club owner introduces the musicians. "Mr. Chuck Badie has lost his home," she tells the crowd. Badie's eyes are hidden behind his dark shades. Someone counts off a beat, and the band sets off, with Badie plucking fiercely to the end.
Call To Duty
April 9, 2006
Blake Johnson is almost 18. Tan and muscular, he plays third base for the Clarkdale High School Bulldogs. He is a B student who says "Yes, sir" when his coach corrects his batting stance. Wisps of brown hair fall above his green eyes, and a rope choker is clasped around his neck. He lives in a mobile home with his mother and younger brother on Old Highway 80 on a piece of land that never quite dries.
On the afternoon before the opening of baseball season, a balloon floats inside the cab of his truck, a gift from one of the Diamond Girls at school, with a note that says, "Go Big Senior!" But any poetry about the waning days of youthful abandon feels false in this part of central Mississippi, where the bridge to Iraq is a short one.
"Welcome home, 155th!" a road sign announces, heralding the return of Mississippi Army National Guard units recently back from Iraq. At the country mini-mart where Johnson stops for candy bars and gas, a handmade memorial honors a local 19-year-old Marine killed in Iraq. So far, 36 Mississippians have died in Iraq -- 15 of them members of Army National Guard units. From these red clay hills, it sometimes feels as if joining the military is less a choice than the inevitable march of life.
Now it's Johnson's moment to enlist, and the pull is hard.
Toby Keith's "American Soldier" rocks the inside of his pickup. The Marine Corps recruiter tells him he's a born leader and that his athletic skills would make him an ideal Marine. He imagines himself in uniform, and wonders what it would be like, "just actually being a part of something you can feel proud of."
And yet Johnson -- a decent shot with a hunting rifle, with a Bible on his nightstand -- is resisting what feels like his fate. He lives within a mile of two young men killed in Iraq, and the deadly geography is giving him pause. As he says, with honest yearning:
"I want a family and kids and stuff."
A Patriotic Place
Short on money, long on pride
When President Bush calls for sacrifice in Iraq, this is a place that listens. Here, where the gnats swarm and the magnolias blossom, and where locals pin their hopes on a Kia Motors Corp. assembly plant that would bring 2,500 jobs to the sagging economy, only to have it go to another state instead.
Military recruiters talk of Mississippi being a special place, a patriotic place and the envy of other states. The recruiting battalion commander for the Mississippi Army National Guard says his state's force is as large as the one in Georgia, which has triple the population. Patriotism aside, bleak demographics make the state a ready labor pool. More than 30 percent of high school students fail to graduate. The median household income -- $32,397 -- ranks lowest in the nation. When the Cooper tire plant in Tupelo cuts employee hours, the Mississippi Army National Guard experiences a bump in enlistees.
A few weeks ago, some mail came for Blake Johnson. A cold front had blown through the working-class community of Meehan Junction, outside Meridian, and the daffodils of early spring shivered in the wind. Sticking out of the mailbox across the road from Johnson's trailer were two recruiting letters, one from the Army and the other from the National Guard -- the Guard offering a $10,000 signing bonus. All of Johnson's senior year, the local recruiters have come after him; the national mailers were the latest enticements.
As his mother said, as she placed them on the counter, "That's a whole lot of money when you are in the 12th grade."
Square-chinned and tranquil, with a deep Dixie drawl, Johnson understands the vague isolation of his rural existence. There is one mall in Meridian, "and it don't even have a Gap," he says. He watches "Viva La Bam" on MTV while a train whistle blows in the distance. On Friday nights, he and his friends hang out at the Sonic drive-in until the waitresses chase them off, and when there is really nothing to do, they meet at the boat ramp where they stand around a 55-gallon drum and burn trash.
"Pretty redneck, huh?" he says, smiling.
The men in his family operate cranes, install cable and lay telephone lines. His father was mostly absent from his childhood. His mother held the family together, going back to college for her two-year degree. She now works as an IT specialist at Peavey Electronics. They live in a mobile home on two acres of cleared land that cost $3,000. A house would be nice, but Diane Johnson is afraid more manufacturing work will shift to China, leaving her with a mortgage payment and no job.
Such fragility makes the military the best job going, but there are also cultural forces. Johnson jokes about being a hick, but the powerful realities in his life are hunting, church, Confederate soldier memorials and American flags. His public school has brightly painted "Prayer Request" boxes in the hallways. Students held a Godapalooza on campus this year, and 170 souls stepped forward to be saved. Unlike some schools around the country, Clarkdale warmly welcomes military recruiters.
"Not to feed a stereotype of the South, but the people here believe in God and country," says Roy McNeill, the high school principal. "For the most part, they believe the president has their best interest in mind. These are not high-and-mighty government thinkers; they are young men and women who just want to help their country."
For such notions, they pay a price. The football field at Clarkdale is named after a 2003 graduate who joined the Marines and was killed in Iraq. This is the same field where Blake Johnson played quarterback this year, and the same field where he suffered a knee injury that hurt his chances for a college scholarship, which is what led him to meet with the military recruiters.
"If you don't have a college degree, you have to work on the railroad or [the oil rigs] offshore," Johnson says. "Or get a cashier job that don't pay nothin'. Around here, people are like, 'Why don't you go to the military?' "
And yet the weeks and months of his senior year roll by and he does not sign the paperwork to enlist. One night as baseball season gets underway, he goes to the mall and runs into a Clarkdale graduate wearing a red Marine Corps T-shirt. Wiry and taciturn, Matthew Addy pulls up his sleeve to show off his tattoo.
"I'm still studying up on Navy SEAL karate," he tells Johnson, standing outside the food court. "In a bar, I can't even throw the first punch. Being with the martial arts and being a Marine, I'll get charged with attempted murder."
Johnson nods. "You're a dadgum deadly weapon," he says.
Addy rides him for not committing to the Marines, and he delivers a message from some of the recruiters: "They told me to tell you they don't like you for [wimping] out."
Preparing to Ship Out
'There is danger in anything you do'
The redbuds are starting to flare along the roadsides. Spring is here, and graduation is not far behind. Young Marine recruits are receiving their ship dates for basic training at Parris Island. One warm Saturday afternoon, 10 young men gather for an orientation at a recruiter's house in Meridian. The house is in a new subdivision and is palatial by the standards of many in Mississippi. Gunnery Sgt. Mark Ramos likes to bring recruits here to show them what they can have if they become Marines.
No one gathered in his living room mentions Iraq, but privately Ramos says that getting deployed there is no more perilous than normal, everyday life. "There was a young man at the mall here -- he got injured and killed on a hatrack," he says, of a recent freak accident at a hat store. "There is danger in anything you do. War is all around us. We will not send a Marine into harm's way unless they are properly trained."
The recruits -- all white except for a Native American -- gather in Ramos's back yard. Several parents have tagged along. They stand at the side, watching their sons compete in the grass with ropes and obstacles. The boys pant and sweat as the recruiters shout encouragement. One drill is called dizzy-izzy. Recruits race to a baseball bat lying 20 yards away. They stand it upright, place their foreheads down on the butt of the bat and spin 15 rotations. Then they are supposed to sprint back to the finish line, but most are so disoriented they stumble in slow motion toward a stand of pine trees or the side of the house.
One of the fathers watching is John Rue. His son is slender and pale, with scruffy chin hair and shiny blue warm-up pants. "Come on, boy, pick it up, let's go!" he yells, clapping his hands.
Rue's own dream of joining the Marines was thwarted by his mother when he was 18, and now his son is fulfilling the dream. Rue says he has tried to teach his son America's true purpose in Iraq. "We need to show honor and commitment," he says, wearing a Marine Corps T-shirt. "You always love these people. You are not ever there to destroy them. We are trying to make a point: There's a better way." Rue's son wants to be a mechanic in the Marines, but Rue has tried to explain the wider possibilities. "You are gonna have to do some killing on your own," he told his son.
After the sit-up contest, the recruits finish with their drills. They pile barbecue, rice and watermelon on paper plates, and eagerly talk about boot camp.
"I ship July 2nd," one says. "When do you ship?"
"The 10th of July."
Absent from the group is Blake Johnson, an absence that pains one of the recruiters.
"Now, that's a Marine," says Staff Sgt. Jay Wyatt, describing the first time he met Johnson. "Just how he walked into the office. He has the basic leadership qualities we are looking for. He's a quarterback, pitcher and third baseman. These are leadership positions. He is a very determined individual. His scores would qualify him for any job he wants."
Wyatt watches the other recruits chow. "It gets me personally," he says. "There's really not a whole lot of prosperous opportunities around here. We do offer opportunities."
A Mother's Struggle
Pondering other options
There is no other option in Johnson's life that offers such a full package. All he has to do is sign the papers and the next five years are paved with a job, housing, education, medical care, paid vacations, physical supremacy and honor.
His mother supports the war and has voted for George W. Bush twice. "Terrorism is scary," Diane Johnson says. "We need to protect what we have." But now that her son is almost 18 and the president is calling for more sacrifice, she's having second thoughts.
"I'm not sure I'm willing to give up my son," she says.
This surprises Blake. He listens to her talk one evening. They are at a Mexican restaurant after baseball practice, and he is wolfing down quesadillas and guzzling sweet tea as his mother explains her reversal. She makes a case for another option besides the Marines. They could trade in his gas-guzzling truck and buy a smaller car so he could commute to classes at Meridian Community College, and he could work part time.
Unsettled by her own feelings, she calls a friend later that night to talk. She finds out the woman's son has signed with the National Guard. "I feel guilty, not wanting Blake to serve," she says. ""I want freedom, but I'm not willing to do anything for it. I'm sorry if that's two-faced."
A few days later, she is in her living room folding laundry. A light rain falls on the roof. Her son is getting his baseball uniform ready. "Mama, did you dry my pants?" he shouts.
"He's a good kid," Diane says, of her middle son, the high achiever who somehow transcends his overheated trailer with a cologne called Fierce and button-down shirts that suggest he is a legacy from Ole Miss, and not these hills that are covered in green and loss.
"Two houses down from where we live there's Glenn Pugh," Diane says. "His son got the Silver Star on Saturday. Another mile down the road is a young man who died in Iraq, Chris Mabry. I used to give him a ride home from football practice. I don't want a flag. I don't want a star. I want my child."
She is cautious making such a declaration in public. One afternoon she's at a family gathering at her sister's place. Her son is out in the yard tossing a football. Some of the other boys are buttoning on camouflage to hunt turkey. Several of the women are in the kitchen talking. Johnson expresses relief that Blake is leaning toward community college instead of joining the Marines while the country is at war.
One mother says how good she'd feel if her son enlisted.
"Wouldn't you be upset?" Johnson asks.
"I would be upset," says Wendy Stephens. "But I would just be so proud. Bo has such a big love for America."
Johnson is quiet. What she wants to say is, "Bo is only 10 years old. Your attitude might change when he gets a little closer to joining time." But she says nothing.
One Family's Loss
A Marine sent to the front line
Sweet gums and pine trees lead the way to the Mabry place. Everyone knows it by the Marine Corps flag flying in front. Inside the mobile home is Frances Mabry and the china cabinet she carefully pulls open.
"This is the global war on terrorism medal," she says. "This is his good conduct medal. And, of course, his Purple Heart. Here is the Silver Star. He was shot four times.
"This is him on prom night and graduation night. The prom was at the Howard Johnson in Meridian. This is another picture." She pauses. She stares at the six-foot blond with freckles scattered across his nose. "He always had a clear, direct way of looking at you," Mabry says. "If you would have known him. He was so young. So well-thought-of. He loved life. He took to life."
The china cabinet is what's left of Christopher Mabry, the grandson that Frances Mabry raised since he was a boy. His bedroom is down the hall, now darkened. She pulls out his letters from Iraq. In one, he asks if she could please send Pop Tarts, trail mix and razors.
I appreciate everything ya'll have done for me. I wish I was still at home, too, or at least in the states. I hate this place with a passion. You worry about getting blowed up or stabbed or shot in the back.
After her grandson was killed, faraway postmarks and fancier stationery kept arriving in her mailbox in the small Mississippi town of Chunky. There is the official Marine Corps letter from a Capt. C.J. Bronzi.
It is with the deepest regret and my most heartfelt sympathy that I write this letter to you.
And a letter from the White House, signed by President Bush. In her trove of memorabilia, Mabry also has a photo of herself with the president last year when he visited the Nissan plant. She holds the picture with particular pride. "He said, 'God bless your family, this country owes you,' " Mabry recalls. "When he learned that Chris's cousin was over there, too, big tears welled up in his eyes."
Chris Mabry knew he wanted to be a Marine from the time he was a junior at Clarkdale. In preparation for boot camp, he'd run up and down the highway wearing headphones. He'd run on the blistering track at school while the maintenance man cut the grass in the dead of summer. Seeing him out there made everyone feel proud because they knew he was determined to vault over the circumstances of his life and become a Marine. The only anger that Frances Mabry holds is toward the Marine recruiter who she says stood in her living room and said it was unlikely that Chris would be sent to Iraq. Of course, six months after boot camp he was in Iraq, and five weeks later he was dead at 19.
"The snipers set up an ambush," Mabry explains. "The Marine captain said they were outnumbered. Where they were, they really didn't have a chance. An ambush was set up. Chris was shot through the left thigh. His left arm was literally blown off, according to the autopsy report. He was shot through the right abdomen. The bullet that killed him went through the sixth and seventh rib, through the liver, the lung and apex of the heart. He survived for six hours."
She is reading from the autopsy report. A retired nurse, she wanted to know the details. Now she closes her china cabinet.
"The only way to preserve our freedom is to fight for it," she says. Her voice has a quiet dignity but also the weariness that comes with grief. "I feel like our president has done the best he could. I can't fault him because of Chris's death. Every bit of improvement we can make in their lives over there, try to reason with them to see that there's a better way, well, I'm for it."
A Different Path
Decision comes gradually
Blake Johnson is standing on the foul line with the Clarkdale Bulldogs in the late afternoon light. The bleachers are full, and hamburgers are grilling. When Faith Hill's voice begins singing the national anthem, hats are removed and hands are placed over hearts. Diane Johnson arrives by the third inning, after work. The Bulldogs lose but hold their own against a formidable team Blake Johnson describes as "rich preps who drive way nicer trucks than ours."
After the game, Johnson throws his bats into his truck, and guns into town with his friend Tanner Street, the right fielder. Street announces that he's signing with the Army Reserve.
"I'm going," Street says. "Nothin's gonna change my mind."
"That girlie might," Johnson says, of Street's longtime steady girlfriend.
"Not even that girl will change my mind," Street answers. His father, a retired sheriff's deputy, has just left Mississippi to take a better-paying job in Iraq training police officers. Street fumbles through a stack of CDs. The interstate lights bounce off his boyish face and brown bangs. "If I have to go over there and fight, that's fine with me. Hey, Blake, you got any George Strait? That song, 'Cross My Heart,' man, that's gonna be my wedding song."
Johnson listens to his friend, only 17 and already planning his wedding and his war. Johnson won't be enlisting. The decision doesn't come in a lightening-bolt moment. It occurs gradually, seeping in. While the death of Chris Mabry inspired some boys at his school to enlist, it sent Johnson's mind in another direction, focusing him less on pageantry or revenge and more on what happened that day in Anbar province.
"He was on watch," Johnson says, of Mabry. "There was a building. You know how the Alamo looks? Some stone-lookin' little house? He got shot through the stomach. I guess some Iraqi dude did it. They were taking him back to the hospital when he died."
Johnson's tone is reverent. His own path will be different. Instead of boot camp after graduation, he'll try to find a job -- "anything I reckon" -- and start community college in the fall.
The Army vs. Spec. Richmond
September 24, 2006
Eddie Richmond's son got back from the war in June. He wanted nothing in the way of a homecoming, no yellow ribbons tied around trees, none of the piles of boiled crawfish that sent him off.
While other sons came home from Iraq with duffel bags that spilled sand from the desert, 22-year-old Edward Richmond Jr. carried release papers from an Army jail.
Edward had been among the first soldiers to be sent to prison for killing a civilian in the Iraq war, and among the first to walk out of prison. What waited for him was a parole officer in heat-struck Louisiana.
Ascension Parish was the same -- green and mossy lowlands afloat with Whataburgers, Starcuts, daiquiri drive-throughs and gas stations that sell hot shrimp by the pound -- but Edward was different.
He didn't like anyone standing too close. He slept on the floor instead of the bed. When he went through a box the Army had sent home, he found his uniform, infantry badges and ribbons. The vestments of a soldier's life. Edward put all of it in the trash.
His release coincided with a wave of investigations into U.S. soldiers killing civilians in Iraq. After an incident at Haditha, more than a dozen Marines are being questioned in the deaths of as many as two dozen civilians. Some blamed the fog of war or the stress of combat. Others said they only did what they were trained to do.
"War is not a pretty thing," Edward's father often said. "Things happen in a war zone."
The Army had trained his son to kill. Then Edward went to Iraq, and the Army decided he had killed someone the wrong way.
For two years now, his father has asked the Army why his son was prosecuted.
Even after Edward's release from prison, the 52-year-old Richmond's war rages on. He owns an air conditioning and heating business, and as he changed out compressors in the mosquito-rife back yards around Baton Rouge, sweating and heaving, Iraq was with him. He cited page numbers and footnotes from his son's case, like a record needle dropping down mid-song: "In Captain Morgan's statement on the 28th . . . "
Edward was a casualty of something, and so was his father.
In Gonzales, a large American flag hangs outside the Richmond house on two shaded acres. If the family feels any shame or anger, they keep it to themselves.
Eddie Richmond strolled into a coffee shop one afternoon and proudly told the owner, "Edward's home, he's healthy as a mule, he's just getting settled."
But many in Gonzales know about the father's crusade against the Army. It is an awkward fight for someone who drives a truck with a decal that says, "Home of the Free, Because of the Brave." Eddie gets his news from Fox and his accent from the rural hills of north Louisiana. His own father was a decorated Marine disabled in the Korean War. He served three years in the Air Force.
What fueled his frustration was a cache of confidential Army documents he had gotten his hands on that described how another soldier in Edward's brigade with the 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, had shot and killed unarmed civilians. But Edward was the one who went to prison.
There seemed little left to fight for. Edward had served his time, been dishonorably discharged, lost his right to vote or carry a firearm, and couldn't leave the state without permission from his parole officer.
The general who commanded the 1st Infantry Division in Iraq and convened Edward's court-martial, retired Maj. Gen. John Batiste, said he has faith in the military justice system. "If I were Dad, I would be focused on Donald Rumsfeld and his leadership, which took our great military to war without a strategy, with insufficient troops on the ground, which allowed chaos to rein in early 2004," Batiste said.
So Iraq was a mess and Edward was folded into the mess. This was unacceptable to Eddie Richmond.
Father and son shared the same name, but it was the elder Richmond who went by "Eddie" and his son the more formal "Edward." The son was always the guarded one in life, and he came home from prison burning with mistrust. At Fort Sill, Edward spent much of his time in a segregated cell for discipline violations. "You gotta understand, he
didn't believe he belonged there," said Charles W. Gittins, a civilian lawyer handling his appeal.
It is impossible to know whether Edward wanted his name cleared as much as his father. He refused to be interviewed for this story.
His second week back, Edward got a job at a foundry outside Gonzales. He woke at 4 each morning and spent the next 10 hours near a furnace so hot that his boots smoked. One day his boss called him "jarhead." People knew his story.
While Louisiana sweltered and beer signs blinked in the windows of the bars where the Blind River Outlaws played "brain-busting, spine-tingling Southern metal," all Edward did was work.
His schoolteachers had always imagined that the exceptionally bright boy would be a mathematician or an engineer. His parents liked to say he joined the Army after 9/11, but Edward was less a twin towers avenger than an 18-year-old who needed a fresh start.
As a boy, he preferred playing computer games to hunting squirrels with his dad. He took medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. He competed on the math team and was described as a "genius" by two former teachers.
But Edward refused to follow instructions if he thought they were pointless. His father made many trips to meet with administrators at East Ascension High School, including assistant principal Gwynne Pecue, who found him overprotective but struggling to understand his son. At the start of 11th grade, Edward announced that high school had nothing more to teach him, and he dropped out.
He was involved in an altercation with some local boys the next year, and he was charged with resisting arrest and disturbing the peace. His next run-in was more serious. A few months shy of his 18th birthday, Edward was arrested with crack cocaine and marijuana in an undercover drug sting. After deputies swooped in, he punched an officer in the chest and tried to run. He was charged with possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, possession of marijuana, battery of a police officer and resisting arrest.
Edward did a 30-day stint in rehab, passed his GED and enrolled at Louisiana State University, but he still faced felony drug charges. The military was his answer.
"There was the understanding that if you don't do this, the DA will prosecute you," said his attorney, Carl E. Babin of Baton Rouge. A soldier was born. The prosecutor did not seek a conviction.
A recruiter who worked in the Gonzales office at the time said Edward scored high on his tests and said he wanted to serve his country. "He had some problems, but it wasn't anything that we couldn't put him in the Army for," said the recruiter, who was not supposed to discuss Edward and asked that his name not be used.
From basic training, Edward shipped to Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, home of the 1st Batallion/27th Infantry Regiment of the 25th Infantry Division. He broke his jaw in a bar fight and joined the headquarters company mortar platoon. In "Lightning Thrust Warrior" training exercises, Edward was chosen as best gunner and "hero of the battle."
His father counseled him about challenging his superiors. "Regardless of whether they are right or not, they are wearing stripes," he said.
"Daddy," Edward answered, "dumb people are hard to deal with."
For a kid from the middle-class suburbs, he could trash-talk like a thug, "but when he put on those glasses and buried his nose in a book, his whole attitude changed," said Sgt. Shaun Mittler, Edward's squad leader in Hawaii.
Sometimes he came off as a know-it-all. By the time his mortar platoon got its orders for Iraq, "everybody turned on him," said his buddy, Pfc. Frederick Sidney. "He would speak out. Everybody else was trying to suck up."
Spec. Richmond went home to Gonzales before deploying. Yellow ribbons were tied around the oaks in his yard. A photograph shows Edward at a picnic table giving his little sister a playful headlock. In another shot he is shirtless and handsome, with deep-set eyes and vacation stubble, staring steadily into the camera.
"I'm ready," he told his mother.
'Frightening and Chaotic'
Iraq was cold and rainy when the mortar platoon got there in February of 2004. The mud was frozen around Forward Operating Base McHenry, a primitive outpost south of Kirkuk. To fend off sniper attacks, a 10-foot mound of dirt, topped with triple-stand razor wire, surrounded the base. Beyond the wire were outlying roads littered with bombs, especially on the way to Hawija.
"We didn't know anything about the people or their land," said Mittler, the sergeant. "We all had our finger on the trigger. It was frightening and chaotic."
Late one night, according to Army court documents, Edward's squad was briefed on a mission. Word came that high-level insurgents were hiding in the village of Taal Al Jal, possibly with weapons. The plan was for Alpha Company to perform the raid while Edward and the mortar guys set up a security checkpoint outside the mud wall of the village. Sgt. Jeffrey Waruch relayed their orders: Shoot any males fleeing the village, but check with him if possible before firing.
The raid started at daybreak. Edward could hear screaming in Arabic and English, and shotguns blowing the locks from doors. After the sun was up, cow and sheep herders from the village made their way into the fields with their animals.
A call came over the radio to detain all males leaving the village. Edward saw a cow herder in a field about 200 yards away. Waruch would later testify that Edward asked if he could shoot the man; Edward said he asked if he was supposed to shoot the man.
Waruch said no and set out for the cow herder, telling Edward to come along.
The man wore sweat pants, a baggy top and a head scarf. As the two soldiers approached with rifles and plastic flex-cuffs, the Iraqi became angry and began pointing back to the village.
Waruch pantomimed for the man to put his hands in the air. As the soldiers came within three yards of the Iraqi, Waruch told Edward to stand guard with his rifle while he handcuffed the man. Waruch did a quick upper-body search. As he tried to pull the man's wrists down to handcuff him, he resisted, and Waruch ordered Edward to raise his weapon to "high ready."
Edward would later say that Waruch told him to "shoot him if he moves," a statement Waruch would deny making.
Edward was at close range, but he flipped his rifle scope up, training its red dot on the cow herder's head.
The man stopped resisting as Waruch cuffed him, and the sergeant turned to lead him back to the road. As they walked on the uneven field, the man lost his balance and stumbled into Waruch.
A single shot from Edward's M4 rang out. The Iraqi dropped. Waruch squatted down, covering his ears.
Edward was pale and holding his rifle with one hand. He said the Iraqi had jumped at the sergeant.
Brain matter was seeping from the man's eyes. His cows were wandering away in the field.
Another soldier came up. Seeing the dead man's bound hands, he said to Edward with profane prescience, "You are f - - - - - ."
Edward had been in Iraq less than three weeks.
A Soldier's Trial
Eddie Richmond bought a $1,700 ticket from New Orleans to Kuwait, then caught military transports the rest of the way in. A hot, sandy wind swirled through the Black Hawk helicopter that carried him to the 1st First Infantry Division's headquarters in Tikrit. Edward's battalion, normally with the 25th Infantry Division, fell under the command of the 1st Infantry Division in Iraq.
As the months had passed, Eddie felt sure that the Army would drop its case against Edward. "I know my son, and he would not just shoot someone," he said. "How many of our kids over there hesitate and die?"
But the Army charged Edward with unpremeditated murder and scheduled his general court-martial in Tikrit in August. He faced life in prison.
The trial was held in one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces near the Tigris River. At night, father and son slept in a room with some special operations soldiers.
Eddie found it surreal: The same Army that was his gracious host was prosecuting his son.
He sat behind Edward in the makeshift courtroom. When the prosecution showed photos of the dead cow herder on a projection screen, Eddie felt a knot in his stomach. The man's name was Muhamad Husain Kadir. Part of his head was missing.
The key witness against Edward was Waruch. The sergeant testified that after he handcuffed Kadir, he patted him on the shoulder and said to Edward, "He's good, let's go." Waruch said he even saw Edward lower his rifle. Then came the blast.
Edward took the stand, wearing his desert camouflage and glasses. His accent dripped like the river parish he came from.
Edward testified that Waruch ordered him to shoot Kadir if he moved, so he raised his rifle and aimed at the man's head. Looking through his scope, he was unable to see Waruch put the handcuffs on. When he saw what looked like Kadir lunging at Waruch, he believed that his sergeant's life was in danger.
The defense tried to keep out a statement Edward gave a month after the incident, admitting that he was pumped on adrenaline and "had to know" that Kadir was cuffed "before I shot him but it just did not register in my mind at that time." Edward signed the statement after an agent with the Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID) told him he flunked a polygraph; he really hadn't.
Prosecutors goaded him. Hadn't it been obvious that a herder walking in a field with cows was not fleeing the village?
"You don't look at everybody as Saddam Hussein himself, sir, but until it is clarified otherwise, you have to be suspicious," Edward answered. "I mean, people are dying every day, so you have be suspicious of everyone, sir."
"Answer the question," the prosecutor said. "Did you or did you not assume that Mr. Kadir had escaped from the village?"
"I knew he had come from the village, sir," Edward said. "I didn't know. I hadn't formed an opinion based off that."
Two of Edward's fellow soldiers testified that he often talked about wanting to kill an Iraqi. But under cross-examination, they said most soldiers did. Edward's sergeant said he was one of the better soldiers in his platoon.
Waruch's credibility was also on trial. Staff Sgt. Marcus Warner testified that Waruch was a "compulsive liar." His nickname was "Shady Jay."
Eddie Richmond watched his son, admiring his confidence. Edward never second-guessed himself. "Daddy, I've done my job, and I did what I thought was right," he said. He believed he would be acquitted.
He was only partly right. The jury found him not guilty of unpremeditated murder but guilty of voluntary manslaughter. The prosecution was recommending eight years in prison and a dishonorable discharge.
Edward had one chance to address the court before sentencing. Instead of asking for mercy, he expressed a vague regret.
"If I had known everything then that I know now, it wouldn't have happened, and I am sorry that it had to come to this," he said.
The jury gave him three years, a demotion in rank and a dishonorable discharge. He was shipped to the Fort Sill Regional Correctional Facility, an Army prison in the hills of Oklahoma, where he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Sadness Turns To Anger
His father went home to Gonzales.
"You could see the mourning," said his friend Marvin "Bud" Ragland, a retired rice farmer. "His son -- his oldest child -- went to war for his country and was branded by that country as a murderer."
But Eddie received something in the mail that would shift him to outrage. Inside an envelope with no return address were confidential Army documents. One page was stamped "Serious Incident Report." It was part of an Army investigative file, known as a 15-6. The subject was Sgt. Jeffrey Waruch.
Eddie sat in his kitchen and began to read. Waruch had shot three female civilians, one of whom died. Eddie vaguely remembered the sergeant being asked about it at Edward's trial, but the judge had limited the questions. Edward never mentioned it to him. The documents Eddie held in his hand -- sworn statements by Waruch and several other soldiers -- laid out what happened in detail.
Ten days before Edward shot the cow herder, the mortar platoon was riding in a convoy to Al-Abassi when a roadside bomb exploded. Soldiers began firing from the sides of their vehicles. No one was seriously hurt by the bomb, but orders went out to stop any Iraqis fleeing the area.
Waruch began running across farmland after a group of several Iraqis in the distance. After crossing a muddy stream in pursuit, he fired warning shots in the air and screamed for them to stop.
According to his written statement, Waruch said he was 200 yards away when one of the Iraqis knelt down with what looked like a tube-like object, possibly a rocket-propelled grenade. Waruch fired about five times, knocking down two bodies. This subdued the group, but as he moved closer, two other Iraqis suddenly started to run toward him, with one reaching into her clothes. He fired five more rounds.
Arriving at the group in the field, he saw that a girl was shot in the head and her pulse was gone. Another female was hit in the thigh and going into shock. Another was shot in the knee.
Waruch had fired on a mother and her two daughters, killing a 14-year-old. The survivors would later tell a reporter that they had been weeding a bean field and had started to run as the Americans ran toward them.
Waruch was initially cleared of any wrongdoing, but a second review found that he had violated the rules of engagement. The girl had been trying to surrender when she was shot. No weapons were found.
As a result of the shootings, the battalion commander ordered that the soldiers be retrained: no spraying of bullets, aimed shots only, and only when under hostile intent.
Eddie felt his eyes burning with tears. Whoever sent him the file wanted him to see that the prosecution's key witness against his son was under investigation for his own civilian casualties. As he studied the documents, he saw that one soldier had escaped punishment and that another was needed to pay for the platoon's mistakes.
Eddie wrote to members of Congress and the Army CID. When a reporter from the Dayton Daily News in Ohio called, researching a story on civilian deaths in Iraq, Eddie shared his documents and pushed the Army for more. Eddie wanted the same spotlight that burned on his son to burn on Waruch.
In May 2005, more than a year after the incident, the CID opened an investigation into the shooting of the three female civilians. Waruch left the Army early this year. The investigation remains open. Attempts to reach Waruch for comment for this story were unsuccessful.
Edward turned 22 in prison. He subscribed to the Wall Street Journal, gorged on science fiction novels and built muscle. He refused to bend to the will of Fort Sill, spending much of his time in a segregation cell for discipline violations.
"It's a mental war," he wrote his parents. "I'll be fine."
Eddie contacted Defend the Defenders, an organization that raises funds for the legal defense of soldiers and Marines accused of crimes in combat. It was founded by Merry Pantano, whose son, Marine 2nd Lt. Ilario Pantano, was charged with murdering two Iraqis but was acquitted last year by the Marine Corps. Pantano agreed to fund Edward's appeal.
Eddie slapped his truck with "Defend the Defenders" stickers and wore the group's T-shirt that said, "Who's Got Their Backs?" The war in Iraq roiled on, but for Eddie it was frozen on two days, 10 days apart, in February 2004.
Then came a break. In April, the Army's clemency board granted Edward parole.
When he was released in June, he had served nearly two years of a three-year sentence. He called from the airport in Lawton, Okla., and told his parents, "I'm a free man." They picked him up in Baton Rouge. He was pale but rock-hard from exercise, and still had a grunt's haircut.
He soon received a congratulatory call from Ilario Pantano, the Marine acquitted of murder. In a sense they both belonged to the same fraternity of the misunderstood.
Edward told his father he didn't want anyone feeling sorry for him. He wanted to start over. But his father could not let go so easily. After Edward put his Army uniform and ribbons in the trash, Eddie retrieved them and took them to the charity bins behind the grocery store in town.
In Iraq, the Army has tried to make up for the tragedies.
The family of Muhamad Husain Kadir was paid $1,000 for his death.
The Army paid more than $4,000 to the family of the girl killed by Waruch, among them her wounded sister and mother, whose leg was amputated. The 1st Battalion commander wrote a sympathy letter to the family. "I ask for your continued support as we attempt to provide a safe and secure environment," wrote Lt. Col. C. Scott Leith. He closed by quoting the Koran: "We belong to Allah and to him we shall return."
The former 1st Infantry Division commander in Iraq, Batiste, is now the president of a steel company.
Edward is earning $10 an hour at the foundry.
The chapter was closing, but not for Eddie Richmond.
"I just want the truth to come out," he said. As summer turns to fall, he wears his Defend the Defenders T-shirt, waiting for word on his son's appeal.
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