Senior NCO Recalls Remains-Recovery Duty in New Orleans
By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
NEW ORLEANS, Sept. 21, 2005 "This was the most deaths I've seen over the 24-plus years that I've been in the service," a senior 82nd Airborne Division noncommissioned officer said of his recently concluded duty with remains-recovery teams here.
Army Command Sgt. Maj. Jim Tomlinson, 43, the senior NCO of the division's 2nd Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment, said during a Sept. 20 interview with American Forces Press Service that he accompanied recovery teams as a military liaison from Sept. 11 to 19.
The teams included law enforcement officials from across the country and elsewhere, including state police from Mexico and U.S. Customs agents, Tomlinson noted.
On average, six teams went out daily throughout the New Orleans area to pick up the remains of Katrina victims, the sergeant major said.
"We went through numerous hospitals, rest homes, residences and removed remains," Tomlinson, a McAlester, Okla., native, explained. The senior NCO said 96 bodies were recovered during his eight days with the teams.
"Some of the areas that we went into did have water," Tomlinson said, noting the teams used airboats to get to get to flooded locations.
The flooding made it doubly difficult for the remains-recovery teams, Tomlinson said, noting that conditions after the floodwaters receded were "very bad."
"Most of the victims we'd picked up were in the attic and were elderly," Tomlinson said. "Some of the bodies were lodged under the furniture. The first day it was very hard because of the fact you didn't know what you were going to get yourself into."
Then, discipline took over, he said.
Tomlinson said his detail was composed of local Jefferson Parish police, Georgia, California and New York state troopers, and Mexican police.
A contractor, Kenyon International, picked up the remains from the teams and took them to the New Orleans Convention Center for processing, Tomlinson explained. The remains were then taken to a Federal Emergency Management Agency-organized facility in Baton Rouge, La., for identification, he said.
Tomlinson said Command Sgt. Maj. Wolf Amacker, the 82nd Airborne Division's senior enlisted member, spearheaded the start of the remains-removal operation around Sept. 5 or 6. The 82nd Airborne Division handed over the duty to the Louisiana National Guard on Sept. 20.
The sights, sounds, and smells of a New Orleans that had been laid low by Katrina, were "a complete eye-opener for the soldiers and especially myself, because you just can't imagine that it happened in the United States."
"Despite the bad smells and the sights they saw, these guys took on this mission with respect and honor for their fellow Americans and were very professional," said Army Maj. Charles M. Velesaris, operations officer for the 82nd Airborne's 2nd Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment.
"They were just quiet professionals doing their work," Velesaris said.