John Edwards had just returned from New Orleans, but was soon to head back. I hadn’t seen him, actually, since March, when he got back after a year spent north of Baghdad.
Obviously, I’m not referring to the Democratic vice presidential candidate. This is the John Edwards of Scott, Ark., lieutenant colonel and staff judge advocate in the 39th Infantry Brigade of the Arkansas National Guard.
He’s a Democrat, too. Just before called to active duty in the fall of 2003, he’d been a travel aide to retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark in Clark’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.
John sat here for more than an hour and reinforced something I’d been thinking. It was that leadership often means abandoning plans, job descriptions, procedures and systems — that, in fact, those can become nothing more than the crutches of the weak and defensive and clueless, like Michael Brown.
There was the matter of John’s life.
Before the three-day convoy from Kuwait to Baghdad in March 2004, troops rigged their unarmored Humvees to make them something less than the death traps they were. Edwards’ legal warrants officer, a 58-year-old friend named Ron Angel, decided that the Humvee that he would drive and Edwards would ride didn’t have enough steel reinforcement on the passenger side. He got an extra inch of steel and had it welded to the door and the head shield.
Not 15 minutes after rolling past the southern city limits of Baghdad in darkness, the troops found themselves ambushed and in a firefight. The next morning someone showed Edwards the steel siding on the passenger side of his Humvee. It had six bullet markings, three in the head area.
One thing he’d done before stopping by to visit me was stop by and visit Ron Angel.
“Think about it,” he said. “I was driven into Baghdad at night by an angel.”
He was back home adjusting to civilian life and lawyering when the call came that the 39th Infantry Brigade needed to hurry to New Orleans to tend to the masses that had been stranded for four days at the convention center.
Driving along Convention Center Boulevard in those imposing 5-ton trucks reminded Edwards of what he’d read about the liberation of Paris. “Little kids were saluting, women were waving.”
They found four dead bodies, most likely resulting from natural causes. They saw trash and evidence of looting. They inquired and were told nothing firsthand about rapes or violence. “I’m convinced that what was coming out of New Orleans was rumor gumbo,” he said.
Here’s what Edwards saw for himself: Noncommissioned officers were making split-second decisions, without regard for a chain of command or procedure, about how to help people. And they didn’t seem to think a second thing about it. “I think it was having been in Baghdad,” he said. “It gave them confidence.”
Conservatively, he said, there were 200 people in wheelchairs. The buses to carry them out would depart from several blocks away. Those people couldn’t get there on their own. Guard troops commandeered a Red Cross U-Haul and started lifting wheelchairs and their occupants into the back of it, and used it as a shuttle.
Then they ran out of IVs and basic medical supplies. Edwards remembered his friend in nearby Metairie, who, in fact, had fled days before to Edwards’ home in Little Rock, only to return upon learning his house was marginally inhabitable.
Edward called his friend on a cell phone that he charged by engaging the cigarette lighter receptacle of a nearby looted vehicle. His friend and friends of his friend showed up soon with all the medical supplies the troops could possibly need.
Edwards was a fairly positive sort even before he left first for Baghdad and then New Orleans. He said he felt even better now about the human race, even considering what he saw part of it do to others of it in Iraq.