Southward to Biloxi

by Janos Marton | 10/20/05 5:00am

Ever since Captain Jack McDonald told me that my genetically irregular blood pressure rendered me ineligible for the Marines OCS program, I have wondered how one actually serves his or her country these days. After all, the nation reacted to Sept. 11 with anger and fear, not a call to duty. Even if there had been one, it is not clear what anyone could have done except help rebuild lower Manhattan, a task that remains unfinished more than four years later.

Yes, those were the old, glory days of the War on Terror, when the Ashcroft era was still in full bloom and Tom Ridge would tell us each morning if it would be a yellow, red or orange day. Our president beseeched us to watch out for terrorists who could strike any time, but still go Christmas shopping, because stimulating the economy was patriotic. Of course, that was before you could buy yellow bumper stickers to support the war in Iraq. Suddenly, you could both drive the economy and show that you did, in fact, support the troops.

But then Katrina hit, inducing real shock and awe. The coverage was spellbinding. Conditions worsened daily. We saw horror stories and exasperating screw-ups. But there was a stark difference this time around. The tragedy had not only taken place in our backyard, but it was a black eye on the nation that would not go away until we took the time to heal it. This time we could help make a difference. It was time to go south.

I had never heard of Biloxi, Miss.. But as I drove around and viewed the carnage, I felt that I would have liked it. Fun, laid-back and multi-racial, these people may not have been wealthy, but they had a good life until a 30-foot tidal surge took everything away. This war at home has brought all of us here on the ground closer together, widely different as we are. I spent a day delivering medical supplies with Jungle Jim, a wild-eyed character who escorts doctors and medical supplies through dangerous Third World countries, machine gun in tow. After long days at work gutting houses and distributing supplies, I spend nights around the campfire with a cadre of grizzled southerners all named Darrell. They spend their days cutting down trees that either rest on peoples' homes or block their yards from receiving FEMA trailers. This work is rewarding, and it also fosters a community that only these circumstances can provide.

Earlier this morning I touched base with Nick Taranto '06, who said Dartmouth relief efforts were going "all right." This is not the time for "all right" results. America has not seen such ravaged lands in her own backyard since the Great Depression. Elderly people, many of whom were once middle-class, sit in lonesome, rocking chairs. No one has been to their ravaged properties for days. Kids are crammed into already overcrowded schools, after two major elementary schools were reduced to rubble in the storm. Thousands roam the streets unemployed, and traumatized people, many of whom previously had stable, middle-class lives, depend on distribution centers. "I've never had to do something like this before," one woman whispered to me, embarrassed.

Hopefully I will not come across as pretentious and aloof. I was lucky to be unemployed and uncommitted to a lease when Hurricane Katrina hit. I am old enough to be out of school, but young enough to not be tied down to my family or mortgage payments. I am still coming to Homecoming this weekend. But I have decided there is nothing more important in my life than finding the time to help, and there are countless ways to help. If you are on an academic schedule as a student or teacher, take your winter or spring break to come down and volunteer. If you are a successful and extremely busy investment banker, send a $1,000 check down to one of the grassroots organizations here. My group, Hands On USA, sends 60 to 80 people out into the field for about $500 a day, distributed between food, equipment and medical supplies.

As we all grow older, we will have the same "where were you when" moments. Sept. 11 and the war in Iraq are obvious examples. I do not know if history will do justice to this awful tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico. However, even if the media, politicians and academia forget, the people here will always remember. They will neither forget the millions of Americans who reached out to help them, nor the masses that let them down. Now is the time to step up. We must liberate hurricane victims from wretched poverty and bring peace into wrecked lives. We must ensure that all our citizens, especially the ones in southern Mississippi and Louisiana, continue to pursue the American dream. Finally, we have a chance to unite as patriots .

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