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“Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.”

— Mary Harris “Mother” Jones

NEW ORLEANS — After spending six months assigned to almost daily medical flight evacuations from Balad, Iraq, to Landstuhl, Germany, Air Force Staff Sgt. Sybyl Tibodeaux is finally accustomed to the sight of critically wounded troops.

But Tibodeaux, who was up all night Friday preparing to make her maiden rescue flight to Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport to evacuate civilians devastated by Hurricane Katrina, had no idea what she would encounter.

“We were told to expect a lot of DTs,” or detoxing patients, Tibodeaux said. “They got a lot of drugs down there [in New Orleans].”

Tibodeaux, a 32-year-old mother of three who works as a respiratory therapist at Lackland Air Force Base’s 59th Medical Wing, knows about New Orleans’ party-hard lifestyle — for the same reason she has a personal stake in this mission.

“My husband’s family is from New Orleans, and I now have five extra people in my house,” she said.

Her mother-, father- and sister-in-law with two kids left Sunday to avoid the storm. The trip between New Orleans and San Antonio normally takes eight hours, “but it took them 24 hours to drive here on Sunday,” crawling along at 20 mph on a highway jammed with evacuees, Tibodeaux said.

Meanwhile, “I just hope I don’t see anyone I know” Tibodeaux said, as she worked the evacuation mission.

Other than the DT tip and television reports, she really had no idea what was waiting for her at the other end of the two-hour C-130 flight from Lackland.

Senior Airman Chris Chadwick, into his 24th hour working triage, could have told her.

“It’s mass chaos. It’s not even controlled chaos,” he said. “You just jump in and swim.”

Some parts of the terminal are busy, but relatively clean and cool.

But in the triage area, matters quickly deteriorate.

The enormous skylit room smells like a poorly maintained nursing home, reeking of urine. People are lying strapped on cots, slumped over in wheelchairs and filling every available seat.

Triage is the way medical personnel handle medical emergencies. Every incoming patient is assessed and categorized by the severity of their problem.

The most drastically sick or hurt people — people who need the resources of a full-scale hospital to survive — are called “expectant,” as in, they are expected to die before being helped.

At this airport, where the focus is on saving lives, the bodies of expectant patients have been placed in empty terminal gates near the triage post.

When people die, they are covered with a sheet or blanket and left in place. There are too many living souls to focus precious resources on the dead.

Until Saturday, the bodies “were where anybody could see them,” said Chadwick, a medical technician at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. “We had to walk by them constantly. It was very upsetting.”

There were seven bodies visible today, but Chadwick said there were 15 the day before.

On Saturday, someone finally duct-taped sheets over the entrance to the room where the dead and nearly dead mingle.

But no number of sheets can mask the reality of too many needy people. It is a distressing scene, even for medical personnel, who are so sleep-deprived they can’t possibly give the standard of care they are trained to give.

“The amount of casualties, bodies everywhere, geriatrics dying on the floor, newborns who haven’t had even basic medical attention — I’ve never seen anything like this,” Chadwick said.

Neither has Senior Airman Jason Rivera, although the 23-year-old with the 820th Security Squadron at Moody Air Force Base, Ga., has seen plenty in his four years in uniform.

Rivera has had two deployments to Iraq and a humanitarian mission in Senegal and Sierra Leone.

Rivera has survived roadside bombs and seen “hundreds” of people die, he said.

“You see this kind of thing” in Iraq, Rivera said, “but you don’t really think about it; you kind of expect it. That’s the way things are there.”

But this mission, Rivera said as he stood guard over rows and rows of patients lying on the ground on stretchers, is different.

“It was just such a shock to come to a great American city and see this.”

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