Answering Katrina's call; Day one: On the road to Louisiana

Friday, September 9, 2005
Spc. Mitchell Kester of Fruitland, Mo., discussed his why he felt the mission the National Guard's mission to Louisiana was important as fellow guardsmen Spc. Jeff Cook a native of Jackson, Mo., took a nap during the bus ride through Mississippi, Thursday, Septmeber 8, 2005. (Don Frazier ~

National Guard troops say good-bye to loved ones before heading to New Orleans.

CAMP MCCAIN, Miss. -- The night before Spc. Mitchell Kester hit the road Thursday to help New Orleans recover from the brutal aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, he spent some time with a decidedly less fierce female: his 2-year-old daughter, Abigail.

They stayed up well past Abby's bed time, watching "Veggie Tales" videos and eating blue and pink popsicles. And in the early morning hours, when his sleepy baby girl exchanged her bed for his, he didn't carry her back.

It was an appropriate time for the single dad to bend the rules. Because he knew that, come dawn, he was going to have to kiss her on the forehead and disappear from her life for as long as a month.

That's nothing new for the life of a National Guard soldier. When Kester's then-wife Laura first found out she was pregnant, Kester was pulling security detail at the 2002 Olympics in Park City, Utah. On Abby's first birthday, he was at Fort Leonard Wood as part of homeland defense duty for "Operation Noble Eagle."

Now he'll be in New Orleans for Abby's third birthday later this month, helping his National Guard unit, probably removing debris from the devastated streets of the Big Easy and the surrounding areas.

"Five hundred is a great batting average," he said. "But it's a terrible daddy average."

The 27-year-old Fruitland resident did his best to explain it to her, even using one of the episodes of "Veggie Tales" -- with cartoon vegetables such as Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber -- to help her understand.

There is one episode where Madame Blueberry's house falls down and the other veggies come to her aid to help her rebuild.

"I told her 'Daddy needs to help these people just like Madame Blueberry needed help,'" he said. "I don't know if she understood any better or not. But I tried."

Still, Kester, who works in security at Saint Francis Medical Center, pulled himself from bed at 5 a.m. on Thursday, donned his fatigues and loaded onto a bus with 31 other Guardsmen from across the state to head to New Orleans.

The bus joined 26 other vehicles in a convoy carrying 121 people and two journalists on a two-day drive to Belle Chaste Naval Air Station just southwest of New Orleans. After the first nine hours the convoy stopped for the night at Camp McCain, Miss., just south of Grenada, Miss.

These dusty, out-of-the-way backwoods barracks presented, perhaps, the last chance for a hot shower and a warm meal.

But it was during the long, hot bus drive that several Guardsmen admitted -- in between some off-color jokes and a surprisingly earnest discussion on the merits of a flat tax -- that they were making sacrifices similar to Kester's.

As dog tags swung on the bus' rear view and the cities rolled by, Pvt. Reinaldo Colon said he had left his four children at home. The native Puerto Rican and ex-Marine is now a National Guard soldier in Macon, Mo.

"I will miss my children," he said. "But this is why I joined."

In fact, he said, he doesn't expect to see much different sights than he did years ago as part of the Puerto Rico Civil Defense. There he did body rescue and recovery after mudslides and floods. He remembers the highs and lows of saving lives or finding the bodies of those who no longer needed help.

"It was a lot of excitement," he said. "But it was definitely sad."

Spc. Casaundra Kinder, 27, of Florissant, Mo., left behind a son and stepson. Her husband is watching the children, but she was a bit reluctant to leave.

Kinder is a native of Alabama, though, and she sees the people of New Orleans as fellow Southerners.

"I feel like these are my people," she said. "I want to go and help."

Kester admits he joined the Guard six years ago for all the wrong reasons. He joined for the college assistance the government would provide for his enlistment. But soon after, he came to see it as a true calling.

"These people really need our help," he said. "I don't think we need to be pointing fingers at anybody. We just need to clean up the mess and hold on."

Kester said no one knows exactly what the next month holds.

"There will be ground under my feet for sure," he said. "Other than that, I'm not holding my breath."

New Orleans awaits.

335-6611, extension 137

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