Ed. Note: With this issue we continue our Baghdad Dispatch column, now written by two authors; Marine Capt. Mary Noyes, an attorney, and Marine Maj. Meredith Brown, an Iraqi Women’s Engagement officer. Their respective columns will appear in alternate months. Noyes moved to New Orleans in 2006; Brown is a native of Marrero. “Combat Cajun,” a Navy pilot who previously wrote this column and who, because of military rules, was not allowed to use his real name, has since left Iraq.
Another sleepless night in Iraq. I hear the buzzing of generators and humming of air conditioners outside. Every hour or so, a helicopter comes in for a landing and my trailer and little twin bed shudder. When I first arrived here, I was afraid of that sound, as if the bird would come in for a crash landing right on top of me as I lay helplessly in bed. But now it’s almost soothing, a reminder of the superior air power of the American armed forces. But even more reassuring, I know the insurgents don’t have their own “helos,” giving a whole other meaning to the phrase, “friendly skies.”
I have been here for almost [six months as of press date]. Before my deployment, I was living in New Orleans.
Before we get to know each other intimately, I must come clean. I wasn’t living in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina came. I had just passed the bar exam and had moved to Virginia with my husband – married for all of one month. My husband and I are both Marines. He is training to be a pilot just like [previous columnist] Combat Cajun; I am more the combat lawyer-type.
We took a trip to Virginia Beach for the weekend, kind of a pathetic honeymoon, renting a room online, site unseen. I will never forget that place because we called it “the heroin hotel;” absolutely the seediest place I’ve ever stayed in my life and they didn’t give refunds, despite my threats. But they had a TV that worked and when I flipped it on, there was CNN live from New Orleans with coverage of the storm. Like all Americans, my heart pained for the people of the Gulf Coast, as I watched home after home destroyed by the floods. I donated $50 to the Red Cross over the phone and genuinely felt grateful it wasn’t me.
Little did I know within six months, I would be accepting orders from Marine Forces Reserve, headquartered in the Bywater. I am not from the South. I wasn’t looking forward to the backwardness and hillbilly twang (notice the cultural confusion) of which I was unaccustomed. And how in the hell was I going to find a house?
But that was where Uncle Sam ordered me to go, so off I went. My husband and I flew in for a weekend of house hunting. We had 48 hours to find a home we could purchase or we would have to succumb to renting some overpriced apartment online. I was warned by friends, “No one actually lives in New Orleans. Everyone who knows better lives in the suburbs. People go into New Orleans to visit the [French] Quarter but otherwise they know better than to risk getting mistaken for a tourist and mugged, or worse.”
My friend, I realize now, is a moron.
My husband and I stayed in the Sheraton on Canal Street and within those 48 hours, experienced our first thunderstorm. I went to take Benson, my Boston Terrier, outside and heard a tremendous percussion, louder than anything I have heard here in Iraq or all of my military training to date. The thunder bounced from building to building and was terrifyingly wonderful. As the rain began to fall I watched the people on Canal Street from inside the lobby. I was amongst survivors. The weather had continued to lay siege on this city and there was no sign of surrender.
I was home.
My husband and I ended up buying our first home together in Algiers Point. He came home on the weekends and I spent my first year as a prosecutor returning each weeknight to a big, beautiful, empty house. My wedding had been a big tease. First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the house … then comes a bottle of wine, an entire large pizza from the Olive Branch and trashy reality TV until I stagger into my bed and send my husband an endearing goodnight text message (a technologically advanced love letter).
That maybe lasted a week. Eventually I wandered outside to walk my crazy three-dog circus around the neighborhood. I had acquired two “pound” dogs before Benson. It was winter and colder than I ever thought New Orleans could be. As I rounded the corner, I heard the outrageous laughter of women coming from the back of a neighbor’s porch. I glanced up and saw a group of four or so women with wine glasses in hand, laughing and carrying on as if they had known each other their whole lives. Never one to be shy or pass up a drink, I decided to put my dogs back in the house and venture over. I grabbed a bottle to shiraz, hoping they would like my selection, and bravely asked if I could join in the merriment.
For anyone who has relocated to New Orleans post-Katrina, you can relate to the dread of introductory questions with the natives. “Were you here during Katrina? Did you lose your home too?”
Humbly, I responded “no” and informed them my husband and I were in the military and we were new to the neighborhood. We tested each other out for the next hour or so, drinking wine and keeping warm in our caps and winter coats. Kids ran around riding bikes and generally doing healthy outdoor kid stuff, checking in with their mothers from time to time. And not until when, unchecked, I released my lioness roar of a laugh of which I’m infamous, I noticed not a single woman gave me “the look,” I knew I was among friends.
Mardi Gras 2007 came, and I enthusiastically decorated my entire porch with donated Mardi Gras beads. I faithfully woke up every weekend by 9 a.m. to put on my completely cheesy Mardi Gras hat and ride the ferry to Canal Street. Somewhere between Zulu and Rex I had my moment of truth.
This wonderful place holds a parade for the sake of holding a parade. Decadence and over-indulgence are the religion of New Orleans. Pure hedonism can be a mystical experience – “eat, drink and be merry,” the prayer of the faithful – and I was going to worship at its throne.
This was my city.
Nine months later, I lay in my trailer in Iraq unable to sleep. I miss my beautiful home, my things, my family, my bed, my dogs, my neighbors, my city. The soberness of my presence here keeps me painfully awake. I think about the struggle that continues in New Orleans. The struggle to preserve and protect the rich cultural heritage that only those who have called it home can comprehend. Maybe it’s a hard comparison to make, the story of survival in Katrina with the story being written in Iraq. But staring up at the cold fiberglass ceiling in this trailer, alone with only my thoughts for companionship, the connection stares me in the face.