Just two days after returning home from advanced individual training for the Army National Guard, Southeast alumnus Paul Leoni got a call asking him to help the 1140th Engineering Battalion with Hurricane Katrina relief efforts in New Orleans. Since then, he has had many experiences he won’t soon forget.
“I’ll never complain about having it bad as far as tough situations that come up,” he says. “Watching what these people have gone through, with everything they’ve owned gone, has really been humbling. Each block looks like it’s been hit by a tornado, homes have been destroyed, a lot of people have died…it really helps you appreciate what you have.”
Leoni worked in the 3rd platoon of the 1140th Battalion of the National Guard, which is made up of about 15 people. The platoon was assigned to an area in New Orleans about the size of Jackson, Mo., and duties included maintaining order in the community, improving road conditions and facilitating the flow of water through street drains.
“New Orleans was pretty much like a ghost town, with only a handful of people left,” Leoni said while working in the city. “Lots of houses were marked with the date they were checked and the number of people, dead or alive, that were inside. We always ran across people who stayed and gave them food and water. The people there were so grateful because we helped them out. As much as they’ve lost, they still kept their spirits up. One guy said to me, ‘We’ve got to laugh so we don’t cry.’”
The level of destruction, Leoni said, was enormous, and the platoon had to be careful not to get contaminated amidst all the damage. The troops wore gloves constantly and had sanitizer spray, face masks, and other equipment to protect them from harm. Leoni says the difference the platoon made is incredible.
“If you could take a picture when we first got here and take another now, there are remarkable differences,” he said. “We did so many things. The water level was at about six feet on all of the buildings. At first, you felt hopeless when you got there, and then the water started to go down so we could clear the streets. Things have really improved.”
With the water draining at a rate of around two feet a day, Leoni says the platoon was able to move further and further through the city to improve conditions. Cleanup consisted of moving trees in the streets and clipping power lines.
Leoni says the education he received at Southeast helped him to be successful in his position with the National Guard. A specialist in the 3rd platoon, B Company of the 1140th Battalion, his job focused on maintaining order in the community by helping those who stayed in the city throughout the hurricane and watching for any suspicious activity to prevent looting. He says that after receiving his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in criminal justice at Southeast, gaining knowledge in different areas of law, his experiences in New Orleans helped him build upon that knowledge. Before they were sent to the city, the platoon was briefed on what people were allowed to do within the boundaries of the law. Leoni found that, like at Southeast, it helps to take notes, follow along and ask questions.
He said the military and the criminal justice professionals worked side by side in the city of New Orleans, with the military cooperating with police and federal agencies to do a better job of helping those who waited out the storm. Leoni says the experiences with his platoon also helped make the trip a success.
“It was kind of a bonding experience,” he said. “You were with your platoon at all times. You literally slept, ate and showered only a foot apart from each other. It was a good time, though. We were always making fun of each other. It’s a pretty neat bond, really. I was the new guy coming in, and they taught me how to use different equipment and gave me equipment I didn’t have. A lot of these guys have known each other for four or five years. We’re kind of like Band of Brothers on HBO.”
The bonding experience started back in basic training, Leoni says.
“In basic training, you have everything taken away and it’s really humbling,” he said. “For a while you couldn’t use your cell phone at all, so it was like Christmas getting my first letter because you couldn’t talk to anybody during that time. It helps you appreciate being able to enjoy your meal and not eat it in one minute. It helps you appreciate the small things.”
If helping out in New Orleans didn’t seem to be enough, Leoni’s platoon moved to two other towns for a couple of weeks along the Texas-Louisiana border to aid those who stayed during Hurricane Rita. There, the platoon was responsible for clearing out streets and serving as a public works department for one town that did not have one.
In the face of disaster, Leoni said people were still very grateful for the platoon’s help.
“They were all so nice,” Leoni said. “After all the damage they had, they went out of their way to help us out. They gave us a barbeque with the food they had, they let us jump in their pools to cool down, they even offered to let us use their showers. We didn’t, but it was nice.”
Leoni says living conditions were tough, moving from place to place, from tents to gymnasiums, but the rewards were worth it.
“Two 7-year-old girls came up to me in Wal-Mart,” he said. “They gave me a hug and told me they loved me, and gave me a picture of a soldier they drew. It was pretty nice.”
As for Leoni’s future plans, he laughs and says he’ll recover for a couple of weeks. He wants to get part-time work until he finds a “real job.” He says he is currently in the hiring process with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and hopes that he will be hired in the next few months.
“I’ve always wanted to go into federal law enforcement,” Leoni said. “This experience will be good for me, since I’m getting to work with federal agencies. I’m looking at the DEA and the ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) Bureau.”
Leoni received his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Southeast in 2002, and his master’s degree in criminal justice in 2004. His father, Dr. Ed Leoni, is a professor of health, human performance and recreation at Southeast and has taught on campus since 1979.