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In Baghdad with the Louisiana National Guard

The last time these guardsmen were in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina left many of them homeless. Now the oil spill is threatening their livelihoods.

(As published in Slate.)

Sgt. 1st Class James Scaruffi ought to be having a good night, at least by Baghdad standards. On the grill before him, burgers fry alongside a giant vat of spicy shrimp étouffée, his favorite Cajun dish. On the patio nearby, a half-dozen cheerleaders from the New Orleans Saintsations have just arrived in black-and-gold miniskirts; they plan to spend the night at Camp Victory’s Joint Visitors Bureau hotel, where Scaruffi works as a full-time cook with the Louisiana National Guard. Although he’s whipped up gourmet dishes for a steady stream of high-profile guests since March—from Gen. George W. Casey Jr. to rap star Twista—this may be as good as it gets: gumbo, girls, and a Black Eyed Peas dance routine on the Saddam-era veranda.

But Scaruffi’s attention is focused on the flat-screen TV in the chow hall, where Fox News streams the latest images from the Deepwater Horizon fiasco: Oil-slicked turtles washing up on the shores of Grand Isle, La. Nasty tar balls sending their stench toward his native Metairie, La. Unemployed workers raging outside the bayou’s fisheries and shellfish-processing plants, where Scaruffi once made a good living repairing shrimp-peeling machines.

“It’s crazy,” he sighs, shaking his head at the consequences of the largest marine oil spill in U.S. history. “Doesn’t it seem like every time we get sent to Iraq, things fall apart back home?”

In a word, yes. Scaruffi ranks among the 3,000 or so Louisiana National Guardsmen who already know what it’s like to survive a draining yearlong deployment in Iraq, only to watch on a chow-hall TV screen as an ecological crisis ambushes their home towns, livelihoods, and cultural inheritance. His unit, the 256th Infantry Brigade Combat Team from Lafayette, La., shipped off to Iraq for the first time in 2004. “It was the kind of tour,” he recalls, “where you watch seven of your guys get blown up in the Bradley right in front of you, then go back out on patrol the next day.” Over the course of the deployment, the unit lost 32 soldiers. Then, nine days before they were scheduled to go home, Katrina beat them to it.

The whole unit was hit hard by the storm. Scaruffi, then an infantryman, returned to his home in Kenner to find his living room under three feet of water, toxic mold creeping up the walls. Nearly 80 percent of the brigade’s artillerymen—most of whom came from New Orleans—were suddenly homeless or jobless, according to unit officials; their historic Jackson Barracks was also destroyed. Many spent their first weeks back from war frantically searching for their families. Others found themselves pressed into immediate recovery duty, patrolling the fetid streets of the Lower 9th Ward in an effort to reclaim rotting corpses and suppress looting.

“I guess it took a while for it to really sink in, but after about a year, I didn’t know a single person who wasn’t seriously depressed,” recalls Sgt. 1st Class Marc Soileau, now a platoon sergeant for the Louisiana National Guard’s JVB in Baghdad. He spent the first 10 days after Katrina performing triage in the Superdome, loading medical patients into crowded Chinooks and Blackhawks for evacuation. “I think a lot of us were just starting to recover from the whole experience [of the storm], and now there’s this.”

By “this,” Soileau means the BP gusher, which sent an estimated 5 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf—between 35,000 and 62,000 barrels a day for three months—before the rig’s successful capping on July 15. He expects the spill’s aftermath will devastate not only the physical ecosystems of his native bayou, where his family has lived since the 18th century, but also the industries upon which many guardsmen depend for work: oil, fishing, shrimping, tourism, and hospitality.

Regional experts back him up. Last month, the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that Louisiana was one of only five states across the country to experience a rise in unemployment, with its jobless rate increasing two-tenths of a percent in June to 7 percent. An equally grim report from Moody’s Analytics predicted that “nearly $1.2 billion in output and 17,000 jobs will be lost in the Gulf Coast states by the end of this year.”

More damning still, a team of scientists with the University of Southern Mississippi and Tulane University in New Orleans documented the first evidence of oil droplets appearing in the larvae of blue crabs and fiddler crabs from Louisiana to Pensacola, Fla.—a sign that the region’s food chains may be destabilized for months, even years, to come. Despite the rate at which surface oil seems to be dissolving into the Gulf, thousands of square miles of state waters remain closed to commercial and recreational fishing at present, and only about one-third of Louisiana’s shrimp, 20 percent of its crab, and 20 percent to 30 percent of its oysters are being harvested—an alarming statistic for a state that normally draws $2.4 billion a year from its seafood industry. It’s little wonder, then, that a recent phone survey led by two professors at Louisiana State University found nearly 60 percent of coastal Louisiana residents to be “constantly worried” about the fate of the Gulf Coast in the disaster’s wake, with 43 percent attesting that it had prevented them from focusing on their usual jobs or work.

Seven thousand miles away in Baghdad, the mental-health professionals and chaplains of the 256th Infantry Brigade are also feeling the effects of the BP slick. “I can tell you for sure that our Louisiana soldiers are stressed to the max right now,” says Chaplain Paul Polk from his office at Hope Chapel, where a poster of a grenade hangs in the waiting room with a “Take a Number” note tied to its pin. “I’ve seen a lot of guys who are very concerned about the future of the Gulf Coast, plain and simple; their livelihoods depend on it. I try to provide a listening ear and relieve some of the stress, but what can I really do?” Polk takes a deep breath. “Imagine you’re deployed in a combat zone, and then you watch the news about how the spill is devastating your community and the local wildlife and have to wonder if you’re still gonna have a job waiting for you when you get home—well, that’s more than some of our guys can bear. … They want to know: How long will the waters be unfishable? How will our guys in related industries take care of their families?”

Even before the arrival of the Saintsations pep squad, Sgt. Scaruffi’s chow hall and the entire JVB hotel has been a place for the unit’s southern Louisianans to ask these sorts of questions, and also to escape them. Based in one of Saddam Hussein’s former hunting palaces, with opulent marble floors and chandeliers, the JVB caters to hundreds of celebrities, politicians, and high-ranking military officers each year, from Vice President Joe Biden to actor James Gandolfini.

The front desk is run by a group of disarmingly cheerful musicians from the Louisiana National Guard’s 156th Army Band—a piccolo-playing geometry teacher; a band conductor who gleefully presides over a cupful of “Ragin’ Cajun” pencils; a talented young pianist from Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La., who recently won Camp Victory’s Battle of the Bands. This is the first time the band has been shipped off to a combat zone since World War II, and many of its members had previously assumed their job was nondeployable. The news only began to sink in when the musicians attended a pre-deployment training at New Orleans’ luxury Roosevelt Hotel in such exotic combat skills as “telephone etiquette,” “table service and housekeeping,” and “customer service strategies.” The reality sunk in even deeper this summer, when one of the band’s members committed suicide in the Green Zone just weeks after another Louisiana National Guardsman from the same high school in Ouachita Parish died from a vehicle rollover in Al Diwaniyah.

Now, as the band and much of the rest of the JVB staff—cooks, contracting officers, security—begin returning home this month, they’re hoping to find their state’s shoreline something like they left it. “I can’t imagine anyone who won’t be affected, though,” says 1st Sgt. Bryan David, who works for a company that flies oilmen out to offshore rigs. “Everyone from the southern part of the state has family in the oil business or supporting the oil business. Everyone.”

If the unit’s coastal soldiers have one thing going for them, it’s the trademark resilience that’s carried them through four major hurricanes and two combat tours in the past half-decade. A pamphlet called “What Is a Cajun?” found in the JVB’s lobby explains: “A true Cajun … is a man of tolerance who will let the world go its way, if the world will let him go his.”

These days, even the guardsmen from up north seem possessed of a certain old-school Acadian nonchalance. Some count down their last few nights in Baghdad on the veranda, hitting golf balls toward the mission headquarters beside a sign that reads, “AINT YOUR MOMMA’S HOUSE PICK UP YOUR CIGARETTE BUTTS.” Others converse by Skype with their wives and husbands about what they plan to do when they get home (“Destroy my liver!”) or vent about the BP crisis online (“We can put a man on the moon, but we can’t plug an oil spill?”).

And Sgt. 1st Class James Scaruffi? He continues to do his thing with frozen shrimp, daydreaming all the while about what he’ll cook up with the real ones when he gets home. “Shrimp po-boy, shrimp jambalaya … I can pretty much make it all,” he explains. “If there’s any left by the time we get home.” And if not, BP beware. “If you cross a Cajun,” says the pamphlet in the JVB lobby, “he’ll give you the back of his hand or the toe of his boot.”

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