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Making Your Way Surrounded by Wolves

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“From the balcony I looked out on the big field/it opens like the cover of an
old brief/And out come the wolves/their plans trampling the snow the asphalt/
I stand on my head and watch it all go away, bootin’ up, shootin’ up bring
on the brightness.”
And Out Come the Wolves – Rancid

Spec. Joe Pavlansky from Campbell, Ohio with 3rd Platoon, Company D, 1st of the 148th Infantry Regiment, Ohio Army National Guard, sits atop the roof of house looking down at the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Katrina. Soldiers of the 1-148 Inf. Reg. are part of a massive effort to bring relief to individuals impacted by Hurricane Katrina.

The pummels of dust kicked up from the helicopter that had just dropped me off began to finally clear, and I slowly began taking in my surroundings. The abandoned mall I would be calling home for the next several weeks looked like something from a post apocalyptic nightmare.

Tracing the line of the building from right to left, the view got worse the further left you went – sections of roof strewn about on the ground in a haphazard pattern, walls with holes in them strained under the weight of support and the water, everywhere pools of standing, putrid water.

It was obvious before the storm had torn this building to shreds that it had been under construction, a new shopping complex for this poor neighborhood. Now it looked like someone would have to start over. But when they’d ever be able to, not a one of us really knew.

I grabbed up my gear and made my way to the place that looked like it might contain some answers. As I drew near, a young Soldier, his eyes covered by dark aviator glasses, stripped down to his t-shirt, sweat glistening off his forehead walked up.

“Who the fuck are you?” he challenged.

“I’m the combat camera guy,” I responded.

“Oh, great, a fuckin’ camera guy” he replied, an exasperated lift punctuating his voice. Tilting his head to an opening behind him, he announced my arrival, “Hey guys, check it out, we got a combat camera guy now!”

His call was met with disparaging remarks in the back. I’m not entirely sure, but I think I heard slurs against my mother, father and a few inquiries as to whether or not I had a sister, whether she cute and did she give up the goods easily.

The soldier standing before me turned back to face me, a chuckle escaping his lips, “Well camera guy, you want to head over there,” he said, pointing in the direction just behind me and to my left.

“Someone in there will know what to do with you,” he stated as he flipped around and disappeared into the darkened room.

“Some things never change,” I thought to myself as I made my way to the hole recently indicated. “Damn grunts.”

After several hours of working with the upper levels of command on where I would stay and what I’d be doing, I headed back to the location that was the location of my introduction to this group of Ohio infantry. I pushed through canvass covering that served as the door, found an empty cot and tossed my stuff on to it.

“Hey, the camera guy’s back!” came the voice I immediately recognized as belonging to the soldier I met earlier.

Only the removed sunglasses and increased sweat changed the man’s appearance.

“So they put you in here with us, huh?” he said.

“Looks like it,” I responded dryly and continued unpacking my gear. I was in no real mood to play silly infantry games, I knew I was the FNG but, really, I was in no mood.

Walking around to the other side of my cot, my antagonizer looked me up and down.

“So what’s you name camera guy,” he poked.

“Spec. Cossel, good to meet you,” I said as I extended my hand outwards.

“I’m Rinaldi,” he said looking down at my hand, not extending his, I immediately thought “ringleader.”

“Try not to get in our way, we wouldn’t want to have to pull your butt out of the water too,” he stated.

“I’ll do what I can,” I spat back.

Rinaldi walked away, and I stretched out. Tomorrow would start early, and I was exhausted.

The next few weeks were a non-stop blur, breaking down doors, searching buildings, motoring or paddling boats down streets meant for cars and, of course, leaving that now famous mark on any building we’d gone through.

The September heat and humidity of the New Orleans sun made everything seem ten times harder, all movement slower, eating up energy at a ridiculous pace. But we didn’t care, we knew the work we were doing was important — lives were on the line.

We saw our share of the destroyed lives, the destroyed homes, the receding water lines leaving their sewer-like marks on the side of houses — and of the bodies. Bodies floating in the water or laid out on attic floors, twisted in unimaginable contortions.

A few days after my arrival, we’d had a particularly tough time as we’d found several bodies, been attacked by starving dogs, one of the large trucks we used had misjudged a turn and slipped into a culvert, burying the truck up to its windows. I made sure my ass was not the cause of any misstep, I took my pictures, kicked in doors, pulled my part of the responsibilities.

We were about to call it a day, pulling the found boats onto trailers, soldiers jumping into the back of the vehicle that would take us back to our shopping mall of a home. I’d dropped my gear and was leaning back against one of the large wheels of the truck. Rinaldi walked up to me. Bending over, he whipped off his aviator sunglasses, bent over, and placed his hands on his thighs.

“What’s your name again,” he asked me.

“I already told you, Spec. Cossel,” I snapped.

“No man, what’s your name,” he said back, the edge in his voice gone.

Not fully understanding exactly what was going on, I looked back at Rinaldi with a bit of confusion.

“Um,” I stammered for a second, “Ben, my name’s Ben,” I said.

“Hey guys,” Rinaldi called out. “I want you all to meet Ben, you used to know him as camera guy.”

Heads popped over the top of the truck as Soldiers peered down.

“What’s up Ben,” one of them called out.

Rinaldi reached his hand out, helping me up.

“You’re all right Ben,” he said.

And I realized what exactly had just transpired — I was finally in with these guys.

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