St. John plays host to 82nd Airborne Division

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 21, 2005


Staff Reporter

RESERVE — The St. John Airport in Reserve has played host to the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division of Fort Bragg, NC, for the past two weeks in their efforts to provide relief to the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Commander of 282 Aviation of the Black Hawk unit in support of the 82nd Airborne Division Lt. Col. Dan Huggins said this mission has been a memorable one.

“I’ve got people here that have been in the Army for 15 years,” Huggins said. “They say these missions were the best they’ve done in their careers.”

Huggins said they have supported the division under the direction of F.E.M.A and actively supporting the Americans in New Orleans helping them get back to living a normal life.

“This is the best job we could do,” he said. “Americans from the 82nd helping Americans in New Orleans. It’s a natural disaster and I feel for the people that lost everything, but this has reaffirmed my belief that we were doing the right thing and what a great place to be and do it.”

Operations Officer for 282 Aviation Carey Wagen, originally from St. Petersburg, Fla., said their primary concern was evacuating the people from the Convention Center.

“My initial impression when flying over the city was apocalyptic,” Wagen said. “There was a lot of devastation.”

Wagen said she had the opportunity to take a “right seat” ride with a friend who is a Third Brigade Operations Officer, 82nd, in a Humvee down the streets of New Orleans to see the ground perspective.

“It is bad even from an aerial view,” she said. “But the ground perspective is much worse. It makes you appreciate the amount of work it will take to rebuild this city.”

Wagen said walking into the Superdome was shocking and the Convention Center was trashed.

“It was like they had a Mardi-Gras and nobody cleaned up,” she said. “There were tables, chairs, garbage, clothes, feces and urine. The place reeked of rotting flesh, urine and feces. I couldn’t breathe through my nose at all.”

Wagen said she wasn’t mentally prepared to deal with some of the things she saw, especially knowing that some never escaped.

“We saw bodies out there,” she said. “We had to report the bodies. I have two kids myself and I can’t imagine having to deal with the loss of them. It was hard seeing innocent people getting caught in that, being helpless and not being able to do anything about it. I wish we would’ve gotten here sooner, but that is not my call. We could have easily been here a lot sooner, if someone would’ve called for us. We are a quick response force. I just wish there was more we could have done.”

St. John Airport Manager Rick Moran and friend of the airport Blaine Heltz said they were happy for the division to be there.

Moran said St. John Parish President Nickie Monica went to the operations center in Baton Rouge and offered the airport for storm relief.

“They moved in quick,” Moran said. “Within a day and a half everything was in place. They have kept everything nice and neat. They even cut grass for me. They are a super bunch. They didn’t just come and take over, they came and we all cooperated with each other.”

Moran said before they were set up Reserve Christian Church supplied buses, food, showers and shelter.

“Our community wanted to help out,” said Heltz. “We were getting donations, so we decided to cook for the soldiers. I got together with some of my friends and we cooked them a meal, which lead to another meal and another. They appreciated everything. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many thanks you’s we got.”

Heltz said he and the community were more thankful that they were here.

“Our country is strong, because of our military,” he said. “They pay the price and we get the benefits. We wanted to do something for them.”

Moran said the utilization of the airport just shows how valuable it is to St. John

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Parish. Local companies have come to the airport looking for ways to assist. Dredging Supply Company in Reserve offered forklifts and more, according to Moran.

“This airport can be utilized for so many things,” said Heltz. “The Parish has no idea what we have here.”

Captain in the U.S. Army and current Company Commander of the 12 Black Hawks in St. John Parish, Phillip Mazengo was responsible for over-all operations of the Black Hawks when they went out to support relief for the victims. He is originally from Charlotte, NC.

“Every day, I would go out and fly a mission,” Mazengo said. “I would come back and gather all the information or request from F.E.M.A or the 82nd Airborne Division and allocate aircraft to how we were going to support the next day.”

Mazengo said most days they launched eight aircraft for mission support, two aircraft to support the commanding general and two aircraft for maintenance.

The most interested mission was bringing a F.E.M.A generator from Baton Rouge to New Orleans to place on the top of the Shell Tower.

“We never get to fly around downtown in the cities weaving through the buildings,” he said. “This is something I will never get to experience again, something out of the ordinary besides what we do everyday in Fort Bragg.”

Carey Wagen was also a part of this mission and she said the funny thing about it was someone spray painted “Generator Here” on the top of the building so they just landed it there.

They also set up cameras at the top of the building in order to watch over the city, according to Wagen.

Mazengo said seeing the animals got to him.”I am a big animal lover,” he said. “That was the hardest thing for me, having to bypass the animals. It’s just amazing the devastation that the TV and newspapers could never portray.”

Parish President Nickie Monica said he was proud to have the division here. “Once I heard they were looking for a place, we made it available,” Monica said. “We are all so proud of all the young men and women. We wanted to show them how much we thank them and appreciate them. We are so happy to support them for what they are doing for us. Just being around them made me proud to be an American.”