"Imagine yourself in a city [with] nobody else, you're the authority, and actually your command is the authority, and you're sitting here watching them take things," says Specialist Jon-Erik Miletello of Monroe, who recently returned to New Orleans and recalled those days. Miletello is among several soldiers to break silence and tell his story of corruption in the ranks -- how his fellow soldiers and officers plundered some of the very homes and stores they were entrusted to protect in a disaster of biblical proportions.
The stories of Miletello and others are corroborated by top brass. On Sept. 28, 2005, a full month into the chaos, Brig. Gen. John Basilica Jr., fresh from a tour of duty in Iraq, assumed command of the Louisiana Army and Air National Guard in "Joint Task Force Pelican," the Guard's name for its six-month deployment in response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
In a July interview in Baton Rouge, Basilica, dressed in fatigues, acknowledged the misconduct of a few soldiers among more than 30,000 deployed from Louisiana and other states after the two storms. "We are very disappointed in these few because they breached a sacred trust, as we're there to help and support the citizens. They should not have taken advantage of their position, and they did. We had several soldiers that took advantage of their position, took advantage of the situation, to steal property that wasn't theirs."
In response to a Freedom of Information Act request for details on soldiers punished during the hurricane deployment, the Louisiana National Guard provided a chart of special courts-martial listings and related "promulgating orders." The records show the Guard court-martialed 19 soldiers. Guard officials also say two commissioned officers resigned amid allegations of misconduct -- a total of 21 soldiers and officers, from seven units, all caught up in the scandal.
The courts-martial, prosecuted under the Louisiana Code of Military Justice, took place between September 2005 and February 2006 at various locations, including the Alario Center in Westwego, in Baton Rouge and at Camp Beauregard in Pineville. Most of the 19 were convicted on multiple charges. Ten were found guilty of larceny; four, guilty of unauthorized entry of a place of business; three, guilty of simple burglary of a pharmacy; and one, guilty of illegal possession of a stolen firearm. Others were found guilty of various additional offenses, including failure to obey a direct order, assault and possession with the intent to distribute illegal drugs.
Punishments varied. Twelve soldiers, including three noncommissioned officers, were kicked out of the Guard for bad conduct. Fourteen drew jail sentences ranging from 15 days to six months -- but most of those sentences were suspended in part or in full. Fifteen of those convicted, including some who were kicked out, took a reduction in rank. All 19 were slapped with fines ranging from $500 to more than $3,000.
Eleven of the 21 punished were members of the 527th Engineer Battalion, headquartered in Lincoln Parish near Ruston. Of those 11, all but two belonged to the battalion's Charlie Company, based in West Monroe. Among the ranks of those court-martialed: nine noncommissioned officers -- all in positions of authority over lower ranking enlisted men and women who looked up to them for leadership.
Specialist Miletello mused on the irony of seeing some of his leaders subjected to military justice. "They teach you how to handle situations," he says, smiling, "and they just totally did the opposite of what they preached."
Former Private Jacob Cox was court-martialed last Sept. 20 and discharged after a lieutenant caught him taking a bottle of the pain killer hydrocodone from a New Orleans area pharmacy. Before the 20-year-old's death from a suspected drug overdose less than 10 months later, Cox told his father, Wayne Cox of Chatham, that he took the medicine because he was ill after working 22-hour days under harsh conditions. Cox told his dad the looting was rampant -- and that some of his own officers were the ringleaders. Wayne Cox remembers his son telling him, "There was one jewelry store where they posted us outside, the officers went inside and filled their pockets with the real expensive jewelry."
Gen. Basilica says he had no knowledge of that incident.
Former Private Trey Battaglia, who before Katrina had twice tested positive for marijuana but was not charged with misconduct during Joint Task Force Pelican, remembers one September afternoon when he was on foot patrol in Chalmette. Battaglia says he heard a commotion coming from a gun store, Chalmette Shooting Specialties, 613 W. Judge Perez Drive.
"You know, we're looking for looters. That's what we're out doing," Battaglia said recently as he stood outside the vacant building that once housed the store. "So I went to go scope it out, and when I arrived I saw my platoon sergeant and a couple of my squad leaders rummaging through the weapons." Battaglia says he saw Sergeants Patrick Platt, Christopher Bartlett and Matthew Maggio each take a gun from the evacuated store. "Sergeant Platt took the one that was unrecognizable, Sergeant Bartlett took the M-4, and Sergeant Maggio took the .12-gauge Mossberg."
In a Sept. 27, 2005, statement to State Police investigators, Platt admitted backing a National Guard dump truck up to an evacuated NAPA auto parts store in Chalmette and taking hundreds of dollars worth of tools, including bags full of sockets, ratchets and wrenches. According to Guard records, Platt was court-martialed and convicted of two counts of unauthorized entry of a place of business, two counts of larceny over $500, one count of larceny over $100 and one count of dereliction in the performance of duties. Platt received a 180-day jail sentence -- 150 days of it suspended -- plus a $3,249 fine and a reduction in rank from Sergeant First Class, E-7, to Sergeant, E-5. Platt had no comment on his court-martial.
Bartlett and Maggio were court-martialed on Jan. 20. Each was convicted of larceny and two counts of unauthorized entry of a place of business. Each received a 30-day suspended jail sentence, a $1,000 fine and a reduction in rank from Sergeant, E-5, to Specialist, E-4. Neither Bartlett nor Maggio returned a phone message left at the battalion headquarters.
All three soldiers remain active in the Louisiana National Guard. "People can make mistakes, and you can get a second chance, but you're going to pay according to the punishment that's meted out," says Gen. Basilica.
Former Private Battaglia was discharged from the Guard in February. He says he left in disgust over what he witnessed inside the gun store and how the noncommissioned officers tried to explain away their behavior in response to his questioning. "What are y'all doing?" Battaglia says he asked the others. "They just basically put it on it like, 'This is ruined stuff. Who's going to say anything, blah, blah ... ? We've been down here for this. We deserve something.'"
Like Battaglia, former Corporal Chris Carr left the Guard after serving in Joint Task Force Pelican. A 13-year veteran with a tour of duty in Afghanistan under his belt, Carr recalls nothing quite like the day he had to flush fellow soldiers out of a Wal-Mart in Chalmette. During an interview outside the Wal-Mart in June, Carr said the soldiers "had a whole bunch of pharmaceuticals that they had stolen from the pharmacy area -- plus DVD players, Play Station 2s, different movies, video games, just a whole bunch of different stuff."
The top brass says plundering soldiers were out of line, even if they were taking only bare necessities. Basilica was asked if Wal-Mart or any other stores gave the Guard permission to take what they needed. His response was unequivocal: "No sir."
No one denies the 527th's Charlie Company and other National Guard units risked their lives during Joint Task Force Pelican and performed heroic deeds. They brought food and supplies to evacuees stranded in the Superdome. They conducted search and rescue operations. They helped restore order. But, in the process, the Guard somehow failed to guard its own from the temptations that go hand-in-hand with virtually unchecked authority.
ON SEPT. 20, 2005, OUACHITA PARISH Sheriff Richard Fewell fired Deputy Jeff Holloway -- just nine days after Holloway, then a specialist in the National Guard, had returned to Monroe from active duty in New Orleans. Holloway had served during Katrina with his unit, the 527th Engineer Battalion's Charlie Company of West Monroe.
Why was Holloway fired so soon after serving in such difficult circumstances? "Basically, he was discharged for falsifying information and not following direct orders," Fewell says.
An "offense report" on Holloway prepared by the sheriff's office tells a story that begins inside an evacuated Chalmette gun store on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2005 -- a dozen days after Katrina made landfall. That was also the day before Holloway returned to Monroe with something he didn't have when he came to New Orleans -- a Bushmaster .223 caliber M-4 rifle.
The sheriff's report values the used weapon at $650 to $750. It was later reported stolen from Chalmette Shooting Specialties, the same store that Battaglia says he saw his platoon sergeant and several squad leaders looting. Battaglia says one of the sergeants, Christopher Bartlett, left the store with a Bushmaster M-4 -- the same gun that Holloway brought back to Monroe. He adds that Bartlett traded Holloway several police-issue 9 mm clips for the M-4.
Both Holloway and Bartlett admitted last September that they and other soldiers rummaged through the Chalmette gun store on Sept. 10, 2005, that Bartlett took the Bushmaster rifle and that Sergeant Matthew Maggio took a Mossberg .12-gauge shotgun.
Walking along the vacant storefront in June, Battaglia recalled watching them carry the weapons from the store to a National Guard truck parked nearby. Gesturing toward a door, he said, "They just took them and snuck them out through this back door and walked around this neighborhood." Pointing to the neighborhood behind the store, Battaglia added that the soldiers carried the weapons "through these houses" to a gas station where the Guard had set up a command post and threw them into a Guard truck "under some stuff."
In a Sept. 27, 2005, statement, Bartlett said that he and Maggio were "going to take the weapons back the next day but we found out that night we were going home. And we kind of panicked and, uh, put it in our bags. We took them home and I gave it to Holloway thinking like he might turn it in."
Holloway told a different story a week earlier, on Sept. 20, 2005. He said that during the bus ride home from New Orleans, he and Bartlett worked out a deal. Holloway just happened to have a magazine for a type of pistol that he knew Bartlett had recently bought, and they agreed to swap the magazine for the M-4. Holloway said he gave Bartlett the magazine at Charlie Company's West Monroe armory once they returned from New Orleans, and the pair arranged to meet later at a nearby K-Mart parking lot, where Bartlett gave Holloway the M-4.
However, Holloway told still another version of his story to his supervisor in the sheriff's office on Sept. 16, 2005. When his boss first questioned him about the gun, Holloway said that he "had taken the weapon off of a black male who was trying to enter the Superdome," according to the supervisor. Holloway later admitted that was a lie. When asked, "Why did you say this?" he responded, "Trying to keep myself out of trouble."
"Of course, if he'll lie to us on this, then he'll lie in the courtroom, and that's one of the things that we don't tolerate," says Fewell, the Ouachita sheriff.
When Holloway initially told his sheriff's office supervisor how he obtained the weapon from a black man at the Superdome, the supervisor ordered him to open a case and log the gun into evidence, according to the offense report. Sheriff Fewell says Holloway "failed to comply with that supervisor's orders." Two days later, after Holloway had mentioned he was going to order a scope for the rifle, his supervisor repeated the order. This time, Holloway turned over the weapon.
Fewell says that after firing Holloway, he submitted the case to the State Police and to the Ouachita Parish District Attorney for possible prosecution on state criminal charges of illegal possession of a firearm, filing a false report and malfeasance in office. Ouachita DA Jerry Jones declined to press charges, saying the original crime took place outside his jurisdiction. "It should be dealt with severely, in the parish of occurrence -- St. Bernard -- or by the military," Jones says. "Or possibly by the federal authorities."
Guard records show Holloway was one of the 19 soldiers court-martialed during hurricane deployment. He was charged under the Louisiana Code of Military Justice with unauthorized entry of a place of business and illegal possession of a stolen firearm. He was arraigned at Camp Beauregard in Pineville and found guilty on both counts. His punishment: a 30-day suspended jail term, a $1,000 fine and a reduction in rank from Specialist, E-4, to Private First Class, E-3.
Holloway did not return a phone call to his battalion headquarters in Lincoln Parish.
The Guard likewise said nothing about these courts-martial at the time. It did not even report back to Sheriff Fewell. "You would have thought there would have been more follow-up on this thing," Fewell says.
Gen. Basilica denied any sort of cover-up, but added, "We don't, as a rule, publicize the fact that we're administering discipline to our soldiers."
ON THE FRONT PAGE OF ITS SEPT. 26, 2005, edition, USA Today carried a touching color photo above the fold of National Guard Specialist Jon-Erik Miletello of Monroe rescuing his grandmother from her flooded home in Erath, right after Hurricane Rita. The widely circulated picture drew international attention to hurricane relief efforts under way in Louisiana, and overnight Miletello became a poster boy for the Louisiana National Guard.
What Miletello didn't let on at the time was that he had another story to tell -- one calling into question the conduct of some of his National Guard leaders. That story takes place in Chalmette earlier in September, just a few days after Katrina, when Miletello's platoon was helping local firefighters clean up their station. Miletello says they were on lunch break when he watched the officer in charge of his platoon -- Lt. Corby Moore -- stroll across the street to an unsecured workshop and take a motor off a boat inside the building.
Standing in front of the wind-battered workshop again in June, Miletello traced Moore's steps. "We were parked right here," Miletello says, pointing toward the fire station, "eating lunch, and he just walked over, picked the motor off the back end -- I think he had two screws to undo -- and then picked it up and put it in the back of the Humvee."
During an interview at his home near Colfax in July, Moore admitted taking the motor, but said he meant for soldiers to use it getting around the flooded New Orleans area. Moore said he didn't know what became of the motor or even whether it was ever pressed into service by the Guard. Moore also admitted taking home a souvenir from Katrina -- a pistol he said he confiscated from an off-duty sheriff's deputy in New Orleans.
Moore said one evening weeks after Katrina, a group of National Guard soldiers showed up at his doorstep unannounced and searched his home. He said they confiscated the pistol he brought back from New Orleans. It wasn't the only Katrina souvenir the Lieutenant was accused of taking.
Former Cpl. Chris Carr says he saw Moore and a noncommissioned officer take other small items from an unattended Carnival Cruise Line staging area on the New Orleans riverfront. Standing near the spot earlier this summer, Carr says, "They broke into a souvenir shop, stole all these cigarettes and colognes and books -- souvenir-type stuff, like sunglasses ... little mp3 players, stuff like that."
Moore says he took cigarettes to distribute among soldiers. He claims he did it to win their cooperation, but Carr suspects Moore did it to buy their silence. Military records identify Moore as one of two commissioned officers to face discipline for alleged misconduct during the hurricane deployment.
But, unlike the 19 soldiers -- including nine noncommissioned officers -- who were court-martialed, Moore and Capt. Ernest Miles were allowed to resign from the Guard. Some accuse the Guard of playing by a double standard because of that.
"It was a finger-pointing issue in this thing," says Carr. "There was corruption all through it, and basically the only people that really got any discipline brought against them were your younger, lower enlisted-ranking guys."
The Guard's chart of special courts-martial shows punishments did in fact vary according to rank. Of the 19 soldiers court-martialed, 10 were below the rank of sergeant, and nine of those were kicked out of the Guard for bad conduct. By contrast, of the nine noncommissioned officers, only three were kicked out. Six were allowed to stay in the Guard and save their military careers, getting by with modest jail terms -- mostly suspended -- most with demotions, and all fined.
Gen. Basilica denied that application of a double standard. "I don't think it would be surprising that in most cases, senior noncommissioned officers -- ones that have the most to lose -- would accept ... harsh punishment and also want to stay because they have so much to lose in terms of years of service and potential future benefits, whereas the younger soldiers don't have that, and in many cases, if they're struggling in the unit, many of them are just as happy to get out."
Miletello was not charged with misconduct during his deployment for Katrina and Rita, and he says the vast majority of his comrades served with honor. But the soldier whose image represents the Louisiana National Guard at its best knows firsthand the Guard's hurricane performance really wasn't so picture perfect.
WHAT DO MILETELLO, BATTAGLIA AND Carr have in common? All are current or former members of the Lincoln Parish-based 527th Engineer Battalion's Charlie Company of West Monroe. All are veterans of the unit's deployment to South Louisiana for Joint Task Force Pelican. And all are whistle blowers for misconduct they witnessed among fellow soldiers, noncommissioned officers and officers.
Why did Battaglia, Carr and Miletello blow the whistle? Battaglia's father, Mike Battaglia, says it was as much a matter of self-protection as doing the right thing. The elder Battaglia says that while his son was still on hurricane duty last September, he received a disturbing phone call from a man who identified himself as a sergeant calling from the National Guard outpost at the Alario Center. Battaglia says the caller "told me I needed to get my son out of New Orleans -- now -- that they were, I don't know if he used the word 'kill him,' I think he did, bodily harm was going to come to him. He said he was afraid for his life also."
Battaglia says he took the threat on his son's life seriously, believing Trey Battaglia's role as a witness to the misconduct made him a target because his son "saw too much." Mike Battaglia contacted the office of state Sen. Robert Barham, an Oak Grove Republican, as well as a military police unit and arranged for his son to be brought back to Monroe, where they consulted a lawyer. Barham's staff notified top Guard officials about the allegations of criminal activity -- and the possibility of a cover-up.
Like Battaglia, Miletello says he felt pressure to keep quiet about the misconduct he'd witnessed. He says that when a close relative died in October, officers denied his request for a break from hurricane duty in New Orleans to attend the funeral near Baton Rouge. Miletello says a chaplain overruled his officers and, with the chaplain's permission, he went to the funeral, but upon his return his officers threatened him with arrest for going AWOL. "They were lying, trying to get me in trouble, I guess, to discredit me or something," Miletello says. "They were trying to discredit a lot of soldiers. A lot of them got kicked out within that time period."
The commander of Joint Task Force Pelican says any attempt to silence witnesses did not come from the top ranks. Asked if there was any "effort at intimidation, to tell these kids to shut up," Gen. John Basilica replied, "No sir. No sir. I think you've talked to some of them, they're not unwilling to talk."
The Guard did, after all, take action against the 21 soldiers and officers accused of misconduct. In addition, Basilica answered reporters' questions about the 19 courts-martial and two resignations.
And when New Orleans crime started to get out of hand again in June, Mayor Ray Nagin did not hesitate to ask Gov. Kathleen Blanco for help from the Louisiana National Guard. It dispatched more than 250 soldiers back to the Crescent City to help police.
Basilica defended the Guard's overall performance in response to Katrina and Rita. "The vast, vast majority of soldiers that we have -- and airmen -- are dedicated, honest, trustworthy people that you can trust your life with, and they risked their lives to help the citizens of Louisiana during Katrina," Basilica says. "They're committed professionals, and I would just tell you that occasionally, a few make mistakes. I think you'll see that in just about any organization."
Since the Louisiana National Guard's redeployment to New Orleans in June, two more soldiers have been arrested -- this time for taking money from people in a traffic stop.
Taylor Henry is the news director at KNOE-TV in Monroe. This story first aired as a four-part series on KNOE-TV.