D’IBERVILLE, Miss. ( Sept. 9, 2005 ) -- With wide eyes and stunned faces, Marines from the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit looked out the bus window and witnessed the obscene power and fury of Hurricane Katrina.
These were a detachment of Spanish-speaking Marines from the MEU Service Support Group-11, a unit of highly skilled Marines who are trained to provide maintenance, transportation, and other logistics functions.
That day, they were on their way to work along side an international Marine contingent comprised of their Mexican counterparts and Dutch sailors to remove debris and downed trees from local area schools, as part of a collaboration between the international contingent and the Department of Defense's Joint Task Force Katrina hurricane relief effort. The Marines of MSSG-11 were also tasked with acting as interpreters between their Spanish-speaking counterparts, members of the community, as well as both international and American media.
Just minutes earlier, before they turned the corner onto Beach Boulevard along the coast, the Marines were in good spirits. They were joking, practicing their Spanish and talking about how good it felt to be able to get out to help those in need. Some wondered what their Mexican Marine counterparts would be like, or what type of "Meals-Ready-To-Eat" (MRE's) they eat out in the field.
"Oh yeah, MRE's made of homemade Mexican food," said a Marine jokingly. Another Marine kept the joke running, "Maybe they have a menudo one," he said, as others laughed. "O uno de pozole (Or one of pozole)" cracked another in Spanish, referring to a traditional Mexican spicy soup made of hominy and chicken or pork.
As the bus approached the coast, their good-natured humor turned to the subject of translation.
"How do you say, 'first-aid kit' in Spanish," asked one Marine, wanting to practice his interpreting skills. Another Marine yelled out a Spanglish answer that was so way off that he was quickly laughed at, while others chimed in until one was collaboratively pieced together that was close enough to satisfy a group that included Mexican, Nicaraguan, Puerto Rican and Ecuadorian Marines.
"How do you say, 'work together,' yelled one Marine. "Or translator," said another just before the bus turned the corner.
Then, as the bus finished its turn, there was silence. It was as if a vacuum had sucked out all of the laughter through the partially opened windows.
"Oh my God. Look at that house," said a female Marine, pointing at what was left of a previously elegant beach-front home; Its walls gutted, its roof collapsed and sheared by the razor sharp rain and winds exceeding one hundred-twenty-miles-per-hour.
"It used to be a nice house," said a Marine as she snapped a photo of the wreckage with her camera phone.
Other Marines called friends or family and described a scene of trees whose leaves had been replaced by litter, clothing, diapers, and bedspreads, or the demolished buildings and floating casinos that had been beached and shoved crashing into buildings ashore.
One of the strangest sights the Marines saw was a casino in the shape of an old French galleon that lay beached, its mast broken in two, as if Poseidon himself had come up to rip its back side apart with the back of his hand.
Cpl. Edgar I. Santos, transportation support specialist, Houston, TX, said it was difficult for him to put into words the sadness and horror he felt for the people who lived in the area.
"God, I hope there was no one inside the homes when the hurricane hit," said Santos.
Most Marines who were interviewed said they were shocked by the level of devastation, but also inspired by the resilience, defiance and dark humor some residents displayed through make-shift signs they spray-painted on plywood for the world to see.
One sign read, "We will rebuild!" Another one read, "Halftime Score: Katrina 1, D'Iberville 0, This Game Aint Over," or another that read, "Beach-Front Home For Lease."
Santos said he was amazed that some people still maintained their sense of humor despite having lost almost everything they owned.
As the bus traveled slowly down the coastal road, the buckled asphalt made for a bumpy ride.
"It's like being on a ride at Universal Studios," said a Marine at the front of the bus. The other Marines let out subdued chuckles. The dark humor, something Marines are very familiar with, had served its purpose, to lighten the mood and convey a "life goes on" attitude.
The mood had become more upbeat. Santos said he was looking forward to getting to the school and to give them all he had to give.
"Whatever it takes," said Santos. "I am willing to be here for however long it takes."