Soldier's Iraq experience vital to his role in disaster relief


This article originally appeared in the Lee's Summit Journal.
Compared to Iraq, patrolling New Orleans was a piece of cake.
That’s the sentiment of Sgt. Jim Rider of Lee’s Summit, who recently returned from three weeks of Army National Guard relief work in Jefferson Parish, east of the Louisiana city. 
Rider’s battalion, the Harrisonville-based 1139th MP Company, was activated Aug. 26 to stop looting, direct traffic and manage checkpoints in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Their goal was to make a show of force that would scare off looters and give
locals a sense of security.
Rider, who served in Iraq for about nine months in 2003, said he benefited from his war zone training. In Iraq, soldiers had to figure out whether the person walking toward them was strapped with explosives. In Louisiana, MPs only had to determine whether people had a legitimate reason to enter flooded areas. 
“From being overseas, being able to make quicker command decisions on the spot is a little easier,” Rider said. “The patrol we did overseas was a lot more intense. It made it easier here.”
Part of Rider’s job was to let the right people in (aid workers, media, medical personnel, contractors) and tell everyone else to wait until the area was safe.
His background in snap decision-making came in handy during one interaction with a middle-aged resident who asked to enter a restricted area. The man said he needed to retrieve his 98-year-old mother because she was afraid to open her door – even for rescuers. The request technically didn’t meet entry requirements because the man was not a doctor or aid worker.
But Rider was able to keep the spirit of his orders and let the resident pass by telling him he had permission to check on a “patient.”
 “‘What you’re telling me is that you have an in-house patient in there who needs to go have her medicine,’” Rider told the man. “He looked at me funny and said, ‘OK.’”
An hour later he emerged with his elderly mother.
“I’m not the kind of guy to keep a frightened old lady in the house and not let somebody get her to help her,” Rider said.
Moments like that sum up the work of the unit, which finished its assignment without firing a shot.
“They did an outstanding job,” said First Sgt. Don Hubbard, who helped lead the operation. “No incidents, no accidents -- nothing like that. They did really well.”
Because of a lingering power outage, Guard members were needed to guide traffic – including emergency vehicles -- through busy intersections. They also helped staff the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Department by accompanying deputies on patrols. The extra personnel helped get more law enforcement officers onto the streets. 
In addition, the sight of uniformed military personnel helped ward off looters and other lawbreakers.
“By us being there, a lot of people said they felt safer,” Rider said. “Most everybody was very appreciative.”
In fact, the soldiers received goodwill at nearly every turn. The Red Cross offered water and sandwiches and an unknown well-wisher dropped off Domino’s pizzas. A church provided dinner every night for a week. 
“I don’t think we ever ran into anyone who didn’t like us there,” Hubbard said.
Though Rider had seen television images, he was still surprised at the extent of the damage. He witnessed water levels peaked at the gutters of homes and just below the tracks on railroad bridge overpasses.
“I was amazed,” he said. “The wind blew signs over, billboards, roofs completely off of buildings. It was an eye opener. It was pretty amazing to see the amount of water and the destruction it had caused.”
Guard Specialist John Easley, whose regular job is patrolling for the Lee’s Summit Police Department, had seen the damage on television. But there’s only so much TV images can convey. 
“It was worse once you got down there,” said Easley, another Iraq veteran. “It was worse on a grand scale.”
Despite the damage, Rider didn’t sense despair in the locals.
“Most of the people we encountered weren’t really angry,” he said. “Obviously quite a few people were upset. Most seemed to want to start over, get back in and get things fixed. They seemed to have a pretty good spirit of wanting to rebuild and restart.”
When electricity was restored to the immediate area, Rider benefited along with Jefferson Parish residents. His unit had been sleeping in a steaming hot history classroom at an abandoned high school with no power for fans or air conditioning.
And although the duty paled in comparison to the dangers of Iraq, hard work was required seven days a week. Rider’s days started at 4:30 a.m. as he rolled out of a cot to hit the streets by 6 a.m. His shift finished at 6 p.m., but related duties weren’t completed until 8 p.m.
“I was definitely ready to come home,” he said.
Rider can only speculate about what went wrong with national and local governments’ response to the hurricane. He said that when his unit was called, it moved immediately.
“When they asked for help and we got the order, we were there,” he said.
Rider is now back to work as an assistant Army recruiter in Independence and Easley is back on patrol in Lee’s Summit. Both returned with unique memories. 
“We’ve been to Iraq,” Easley said. “You’re helping people in another country. It’s quite a different deal down there helping your own people. You’re standing in history being a part of it. In three years I have been a part of two historic operations and both I’m very proud of.”