Why wouldn't I be here?"
Wiping his sweaty brow in New Orleans, Corporal Michael P. O'Brien of Dorchester, Mass, summed up the U.S. Marines' response to Hurricane Katrina, a disaster whose epic proportions blew a live shooting war off the nation's front pages.
O'Brien, a squad leader with the Camp Lejeune, N.C.-based 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, figures "part of being a Marine is to go into situations where things aren't the best."
By the end of September, the NCO was one of 2600 Leathernecks who had been called to lend a hand in the Gulf Coast region. Serving under the Joint Task Force Katrina umbrella, other Marine boots on the ground included those belonging to members of the 11th and 24th Marine Expeditionary Units; 1st Battalion, 4th Marines; Marine Air Control Groups 28 and 42; Marine Wing Support Group 47; the 4th Amphibian Assault Battalion and flying squadrons from both the 2nd and 4th Marine Aircraft Wings.
Senior Marine was Major General Douglas O'Dell, commander of the 4th Marine Division.
Not unlike their forbears who once guarded the U.S. mail in the 1920s or, more recently, fought forest fires or quelled rioting on Puerto Rico's Vieques Island, these warriors approached their duties with a "do what's needed" mindset, said Colonel John Shook, commander of Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force St. Bernard.
Named for the New Orleans area parish that bears the name, Shock's charges functioned as literal St. Bernards, "saving lives and easing the suffering of those who survived," he said.
Improvisation and small unit initiative marked the overall effort as Marines sometimes used borrowed johnboats and makeshift paddles in their search for stranded citizens. Marine air was especially effective, said 24th MEU spokesman Captain Dave Nevers. During one three-day stretch of continuous helicopter sorties, a mix of Hueys, Sea Knights, and Super Stallions plucked 446 people from rooftops, highway overpasses, and other hard-to-reach high ground where residents had taken refuge.
Tapping into their fabled take-charge spirit, the Marines employed a "hub and spoke approach," said Nevers, complementing the St. Bernard Task Force with similar organizations operating near Lake Pontchartrain, Slidell, and in Picayune, just over the Mississippi border.
"We're a big pick-up team," said Sergeant Major John R. Price of 4th 'Tracs, "and everyone is pointed in the same direction."
But the Marine Corps, like her sister services, had to consider more than just the crisis at hand:
Marine Forces Reserve displaced to an alternate command post at 14th Marines Headquarters at Fort Worth while other elements worked out of Kansas City, Quantico, and Marietta, Georgia, among other locations.
Preparing for what Shook called "a double whammy hurricane attack," the Marines staged units west of New Orleans to respond to Hurricane Rita. Forces were engaged in the new, two-front war only briefly as, thankfully, Rita's impact was minimal compared to Katrina.
Commands around the world quickly identified Marines who hailed from the affected region and, where necessary, assisted in getting them home.
While frustrated citizens complained of a Guard-augmented military already stretched thin by combat commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Marines seemed to simply make more room on their already full plates.
Many, in fact, had recently returned from duty overseas or were preparing for yet another pump in the Central Command area of operations. Leathernecks from both 1st Battalion, 4th Marines and 1st Battalion, 8th Marines performed very special, personal missions -helping to repair and restore homes that belonged to families of battalion comrades killed in Iraq.
Recruiting dealt with special challenges, including the displacement of the 8th Marine Corps District Headquarters to Texas. And in the clays following Katrina's punch, 6th District recruiting stations in New Orleans and Montgomery, Alabama were scrambling to re-establish contact with nearly 1,000 aspiring Marines who were already signed into the recruiting pool.
How big was the disaster? One retired Marine leader, Major General Ron Richard, had a pelican's-eye view in Baton Rouge. Richard, chief executive officer of the LSU Tiger Athletic Foundation, works directly across the street from the school's Pete Maravich Assembly Center. "We turned it into a medical triage facility," he said, "and the U.S. Surgeon General told us it was the largest one in our nation's history."
The author teaches at Defense Information School, Ft. Meade, Md. He served in New Orleans with the 4th Marine Aircraft Wing as a second lieutenant.