Missouri National Guard troops perfect the art of waiting

Tuesday, September 2, 2008 | 10:25 p.m. CDT

ALEXANDRIA, La. - The 1139th Military Police Company of the Missouri National Guard awoke Tuesday in a steady rain in northern Louisiana and started the day waiting.

Which is nothing new.

In fact, many of the 62 members of the 1139th who are in Louisiana to help deal with what Hurricane Gustav left behind started the deployment waiting. Many had arrived in the Kansas City suburb of Harrisonville, where the unit is based, on Saturday, but the 25-vehicle convoy filled with troops and supplies didn't take off until noon Sunday.

"If you aren't good at waiting, this isn't for you," said Staff Sgt. Robert Mathews, 44, of Archie.

Tuesday, the company waited for breakfast, which was held up by a late food-service contractor. Then the troops waited some more when their 8 a.m. departure time was pushed back to about 9:30 a.m. Many hunkered down in their wet Humvees, which are not water-tight.

"Waiting is a big part of this lifestyle," said Sgt. Steve Bechtel, 26, of Harrisonville.

Later in the day, after a four-hour drive, the 1139th arrived at the parking lot of England Air Base, in central Louisiana. The 1139th and a few hundred other Missouri guard men and women were there to fuel up their vehicles. After that, it was time to get their vehicles in an orderly line again, and wait. No one was quite clear why.

The Missouri National Guard soldiers are in Louisiana for various Hurricane Gustav-related missions, though most of the first arrivals were military police units. Another 700 are following behind them, largely comprised of engineering battalions.

Gustav hit southern Louisiana early Monday, and eight deaths were attributed to the storm in the United States after it killed at least 94 people across the Caribbean. It was downgraded to a tropical depression Tuesday. New Orleans was largely spared, but there still was damage, and evacuees were told not to come home yet.

Meanwhile, the 1139th was in the parking lot at England Air Base. Once their Humvees and trucks were filled with fuel, the troops parked and most of the men and women jumped out of the soggy vehicles and got busy waiting.

Some pulled out their folding chairs and sat quietly on top of their trucks with a view of military trucks and a parking lot. Others listened to music on CD and MP3 players.

But mostly, there were groups standing around talking.

"Mostly we tell lies," Mathews said. "We've heard all these stories before, lots of times.

"Mainly we sit around and complain."

They also broke out the chewing tobacco and "pogey bait," food brought from home for the trip. Pop Tarts, Red Vines, cashews and beef jerky are favorites.

"At home, I don't even eat junk food," Mathews said.

Cigarettes are also high on the list of things used to pass the time.

"At home, I don't smoke. Here, I smoke all the time," said Sgt. Brian Koehn, 29, from Peculiar, Mo.

Sometimes they sing.

Koehn belted out music. The Carpenters, Journey, the theme song from the Brady Bunch.

On the trip from Missouri, the 1139th has had to wait for no apparent reason at rest stops and parking lots. They wait in the morning and in the afternoon. They wait alongside the road. Ask them why they're waiting, and mostly they shrug.

They're also waiting to know how they'll be helping out with Gustav.

After more than two days, they still don't know what they'll be doing when they arrive at their destination, which they learned Tuesday would be the town of Opelousas, about 20 miles north of Lafayette in southern Louisiana.

One theory behind all the waiting in line for the convoys on this trip south is that during Hurricane Katrina, huge military convoys may have clogged highways, causing traffic jams, Mathews said.

Now they're staggering the convoys from different units to keep the flow a little smoother.

"It helps, a lot, but then we get stuck in the parking lot, waiting," Mathews said.


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