Belle Chasse, LA � The gift of a teddy bear might seem like a small thing in the face of the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina and Rita, but it was enough to bring a smile to the faces of kindergarten and first grade students at Belle Chasse Primary School.
The bears were delivered by members of the South Dakota National Guard who volunteered to travel to Louisiana as part of Task Force Coyote. The task force is working with other states to help support clean-up efforts in the storm-damaged gulf region.
Mary Mallow took part in the teddy bear mission. Giving those children something to hold onto visibly touched Mallow. She said you could see in their "bright and shining faces," what the bears meant.
Mallow left her own three children behind to help people "who've lost everything.
"The minute it happened I had to go," Mallow said. "Giving money didn't do it for me."
Mallow works in administration and helps supply platoons with whatever they need for individual missions.
She went along to help clean up St. Mary's Academy, a school that was basically a total loss. The kitchen in the staff quarters was demolished but oddly enough the dining room table was still set as if at any moment the room's former occupants would return for a meal.
"It was eerie," Mallow said. "It's been a big experience. It's changed me."
The kindergarten students now attending Belle Chasse Primary had barely settled into their old schools when they were forced to evacuate, Mallow said. And their teachers don't yet know where all the children are. About half of them have yet to return.
Mallow met four generations of a family that since the hurricane hit had gone to five different shelters in Houston, Baton Rouge and finally settled under the steps of a local school.
Since they had their dog with them they were unable to stay inside a shelter, Mallow said. The family had lived on the same land for 200 years. They had no insurance but finally were given a trailer by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"It was like, yeah, the little people got something," Mallow said. Since early October, 213 South Dakota Army and Air National Guard members from all of the state's 31 armories have worked cleaning grocery stores of rotted food and homes and churches of flood-ravaged debris.
They've also sandbagged levies and helped students remove their belongings from a Baptist seminary in New Orleans.
Major General Michael Gorman, commander of both South Dakota's Army and Air National Guard, visited his troops Oct. 18 and 19, touring the areas they have worked. Media from across the state went along.
"We want to tell that story," Gorman said.
While there the general visited with troops, boosting morale by giving out general's coins to individual guard members who were recognized by their superior officers as having given exemplary service.
"My thought is that the citizens of South Dakota feel as proud as I do," Gorman said.
All the guard members serving in Louisiana volunteered for the mission. Originally 600 signed up to go, but only 213 were taken.
Fifty-four percent of that 213 were recently deployed to either Iraq or Afghanistan, Major Marshall Michels, who commands the task force, said.
"Our soldiers in the South Dakota National Guard do one heck of a job," Gorman said. "This is one of the pleasures of being in this job."
Giving out the traditional general's coins gives Gorman a chance to get in touch with his troops. He praised the volunteers for their willingness to leave their own homes and travel miles to help someone else on what was termed a "neighbor helping neighbor" mission.
"It just says something about the folks in South Dakota," he said. "Some were ready to go the first day or two after the hurricane happened."
South Dakota troops have salvaged computer equipment from the top floors of ruined schools in the Plaquemines Parish School District and moved it to Belle Chasse where the children of those returning to the flooded area began attending classes Oct. 17.
Medics are providing free medical care to people and cleaning away the storms' remains in Grand Isle, a resort community south of New Orleans that was hit with 40- to 50-foot high waves.
National Guard troops have treated 126 patients there � 95 civilians and 31 military. They have helped 225 people at Meadow Crest Hospital.
People returning to the area are injured clearing out debris, Major Larry DeBuhr, an Air Guard nurse from Canton, said. The guard has treated cuts and joint injuries. One man fell off his roof. Another backed into a fig tree whose branch then stuck in his leg.
DeBuhr's medics have given numerous tetanus shots and treated upper respiratory problems caused by the black mold left in homes after the water receded. The medics split their time treating patients in the makeshift clinic set up on Grande Isle and helping the residents clean up storm damage. They try to clear four yards per day, DeBuhr said.
He has 23 medics under his command with 13 on the ground at Grand Isle at any given time. The medics rotate every four days between Grande Isle and Meadow Crest Hospital near the Belle Chasse Naval Air Station.
The local school district opened with 12 students and now has 70. The Jefferson Parish School District has given the guard the "keys to the palace," DeBuhr said. Troops can use the Internet there and do physical training in the gym. The fire department and local paramedics have been excellent, he said.
"They cooked us gator and shrimp," he said. When asked what it tasted like he said: "Like chicken."
Eighteen hundred people regularly live in Grande Isle with the community's population swelling to 10,000 in the summer months. Many of the homes are built on top of telephone polls. Older homes were only built six-feet off the ground and sustained more damage than newer homes that are built 12-feet-high.
Guard members also cleaned out the local Catholic Church, scrubbing mold off pews so Mass could be held.
"It's more gratifying being out in the community," DeBuhr said. Most of the South Dakota guard currently serving in Louisiana headed home Oct. 28.
Units from other states won't specifically backfill the missions performed by South Dakota guard members, but similar units will replace them in some shape or form, Gorman said.
"Their biggest job now is sorting out what they need done," he said of local officials.
Federal law prohibits the guard from competing with private businesses so once local medical services are back on line the guard won't be able to provide that anymore. But some of the clean up could take as long as three years, Gorman said.
Disengaging from any situation is always the hardest, said Colonel Ted Johnson, Gorman's chief of staff.
"You don't want to feel like you're just leaving them stranded there."