General: Louisiana unit split on whether to join relief effort or go home
ARLINGTON, Va. — Of about 2,500 Louisiana National Guard troops returning from Iraq, roughly two-thirds have said they would rather go home than help in Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, their commander said Friday.
Brig. Gen. John P. Basilica, Jr., head of the 256th Brigade Combat Team, said his National Guard troops can decide for themselves whether to participate in hurricane relief efforts.
Basilica said he conducted an informal poll of his troops showing 800 wanted to help in relief efforts, 1,500 did not and 200 said they did not have enough information to make a decision.
The poll shows that those troops that have been in combat for the past 18 months want to continue to serve, he said.
Basilica said there was “certainly no negative connotation” for the troops that have said they want to return to their civilian lives when they return home.
“These soldiers in many instances have come from small business, have come from work environments that have literally held on their fingernails until these soldiers have returned, so they are not being pressed into service,” he said.
Basilica said other states are sending National Guard units to support in the disaster relief efforts. “So having a choice is, we believe, an appropriate course of action here,” he said.
As of Friday, about 70,000 National Guard and active-duty troops were committed to Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman.
Pentagon officials had initially promised to release a time line of when federal officials made critical decisions in the relief effort, but on Friday, Whitman said the information was not forthcoming.
“I’ll stop promising; how’s that?” Whitman said.
He said most of the information about when decisions were made has already been publicized and the Defense Department’s response has to be viewed in the context of the total federal response.
On Tuesday the Pentagon’s top brass said there was no delay in moving National Guard troops to areas hit by Hurricane Katrina.
Asked why it took days to get National Guard troops moving to the area hit by the hurricane, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld replied, “It didn’t.”
But lawmakers, such as California Democrat Rep. Nancy Pelosi, have called for an independent review of the federal government’s response to Katrina.
“Secretary Rumsfeld’s comments show why it is critical an independent commission evaluate the appropriateness of DOD’s response following the President’s declaration of a State of Emergency on August 27th,” wrote Pelosi spokeswoman Jennifer Crider in an e-mail Thursday.
Also Thursday, U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., said lawmakers would look into the timing of the relief efforts, but right now the priority should be on saving lives.
“It’s not prudent at this point to start pointing fingers of blame because there is plenty of blame going around, but I will say the one very bright spot is the performance of the military, National Guard and Coast Guard,” said Dent, who sits on the House Homeland Security Committee.