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a man in a camouflage uniform
Travis Bickford in uniform while stationed in Baghdad, 2005. Image courtesy of Travis Bickford.

Three Days

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The following is a guest blog post by Travis Bickford, head of programs and communications at The Library of Congress Veterans History Project (VHP).

On August 28, 2005, it was 111 degrees in Baghdad. That kind of heat makes you conspiratorial, like “nah, this ain’t real” kind of heat. I’d only been in country a few weeks and was still enamored by simpler things like how sweat, arm hair and dust combined to make probably the world’s strongest adhesive, and that it wasn’t going to rain until December. I don’t remember anything else specific about that day besides seeing on the news that a hurricane was nearing the Gulf Coast, and cities like New Orleans were evacuating. By Iraq standards, it was another day. Standing in the middle of a combat zone can even make hurricanes feel trite. That next day was not trite.

A group of men in military uniforms
Travis Bickford (right) with fellow soldiers. Baghdad, 2005. Image courtesy of Travis Bickford.

I don’t know what the temperature was on August 29, 2005. Sure, Google it, but it doesn’t matter if it was the hottest day on record, I was better off in Iraq than in New Orleans. In fact, it’s arguable that Baghdad was safer than New Orleans all that following September, too. Which is ironic, because most people are unaware that on August 29th, an entire Louisiana National Guard brigade, the 256th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, constituting almost one third of the state’s total force (roughly 3,000 soldiers), was stationed at Camp Liberty, Iraq. They were less than three weeks from completing a yearlong deployment.

The base felt eerie that day. I was surrounded by soldiers from Louisiana whose collective anxiety and fear had manifested into silence and thousand-mile stares. The communications in Louisiana were down for almost three days, but just like everyone else, we had the same news coverage. It’s estimated that approximately 80% of the city evacuated before the storm. Many who stayed did so  because they were poor, did not have personal transportation and resources for evacuating were scarce.

a flooded neighborhood of houses and trees
New Orleans, LA after Hurricane Katrina, 2005. Andrew James Chier Collection, Library of Congress, Veterans History Project AFC/2001/001/90701.

Considering the socioeconomic situation of the enlisted military, it was probable the 256th had numerous soldiers with family members who stayed. That 20% got a lot bigger for the enlisted ranks. It’s also probable that some of those soldiers lost their homes. The same homes they’d been thinking of going back to nonstop for 12 months, were now maybe washed away. Three days not knowing if your family or friends were alive. Three days not knowing whether your spouse and kids were alive. You see, these weren’t active-duty soldiers who came from all over and were just based in Louisiana. These were Louisianians. Yes, it was probable that at least some of these soldiers experienced these fears. And many of them were redeployed at home for a disaster relief mission only three days after they returned from a yearlong combat-tour. Their fear, their silence, their empty stares and anything else they felt waiting at Camp Liberty, were justified.

Those few days after Katrina are some of the most pronounced memories from my time in Iraq. The topic is rarely omitted whenever I discuss my war experience still, because I’ll never stop wondering what those soldiers persevered, wondering what they were thinking and wanting their stories to be heard. Today, I’m fortunate that it’s my job to collect the firsthand accounts from the 256th. VHP has a mission to collect, preserve and make accessible the memories of any veteran who served our nation from the First World War to more recent conflicts and peacetime missions. We are building an initiative that focuses on veterans who served on the front lines of the COVID pandemic and other emergency/disaster relief missions, or who were members of the Uniformed Commissioned Corps. These stories will do it justice.

clothing, military uniforms and sleeping cots spread across a large open room
Living area for National Guard in the convention center in New Orleans, Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, 2005. Andrew James Chier Collection, Library of Congress, Veterans History Project AFC/2001/001/90701.

August 29, 2025, will mark the 20th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. That gives us almost two years to gather as many veterans’ interviews as possible. Everyone can help – you  can forward this blog post to any Louisianians you know. And if you don’t know any, then tell somebody about this project who does. Unless your 2005 was somehow worse, then I believe we owe ourselves, we owe both the state of Louisiana and city of New Orleans, but most of all, we owe the 256th our best efforts this time around.

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