There’s been a lot of discussion in the blogosphere about the difference between “the pack and the herd.” I think the meme got started with an essay, On Sheep, Wolves, and Sheepdogs (highly recommended, if you haven’t read it) by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman from his book On Combat, but I could be wrong about that. Glenn Reynolds expands a bit on the idea with several posts on the theme of “A pack, not a herd.”

An interesting example comes from the December, 2005 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine – a story on the people who dropped everything and headed for New Orleans after Katrina plowed through. I covered one such story here back in September – the story of a man who loaded up his vintage military deuce-and-a-half and drove from Texas into Louisiana to do what he could to help. The Popular Mechanics piece is much the same, though on a little different scale.

One of the people covered is Mike Dillon, owner of Dillon Aero, manufacturer of mini-guns for the U.S. military and Dillon Precision, manufacturer of some of the best reloading equipment available. Mike Dillon owns a couple of helicopters, one of which is a Bell UH-1 Huey. According to the story, The Kindness of Strangers:

It’s Saturday, Sept. 3; five days ago, Hurricane Katrina broke the levees of New Orleans and tens of thousands of desperate people are still in the city, trapped at the Superdome, huddled on rooftops and dying in attics.

Suddenly, there’s a distinctive whomp-whomp that only old Hueys make; it’s Mike Dillon, swinging the helicopter he calls the Blue Ghost onto the flight line. Dillon, 70, is the president of Dillon Aero, in Scottsdale, Ariz., a company that designs and manufactures electric machine guns for the military. On Wednesday, Dillon dropped everything and flew his vintage 1968 Huey here in 16 hours. The spine of the American effort in Vietnam, the Bell UH-1 was the Army’s first turbine helicopter, and Dillon’s H model can carry about a ton, or 12 people, making it an ideal rescue vehicle. Since his arrival Dillon has been flying almost nonstop under the aegis of the Jefferson Parish sheriff’s department. “I saw the catastrophe on TV,” he says. “I had the right equipment to help and I could afford to do it. So I called a friend, a high-time ex-Vietnam helicopter pilot, to keep us out of trouble, and here we are.”

The Sheriff’s Department is treating the city as a war zone and so a fresh set of gunners bearing semiautomatic AR-15s with scopes climb into the Huey and buckle into webbed seats near the thumping bird’s open doors in case looters or the desperate overwhelm the helicopter. “Welcome to Dillon Air,” yells Vernon Rich, Dillon’s crew chief, a Glock 9mm pistol on his belt. Rich, 51, the owner of a precision fabrication shop in Phoenix, has built race cars, served as crew chief for former world land speed record-holder Craig Breedlove, and once tried to recover a World War II-era B-29 bomber from a frozen lake in Greenland. But he’s never seen anything like this. “Total chaos,” he says, as we rise, bank hard, and head into the city at 80 knots and 300 ft.

No one knows how many civilians came, but they did–in helicopters and airboats, fixed-wing airplanes and runabouts, from Texas, Oklahoma, Florida and New Orleans itself. The civilian effort represents millions of dollars in donated time, hardware, fuel and supplies. In Dillon’s case, it costs about $250 per hour to operate the Blue Ghost.

Mike Dillon’s contribution was probably on the upper end, cost-wise. He spent four days and 35 air-hours on site, not including the 32-hour round trip to and from Louisiana. Others contributed just as much time, or more however:

Two mornings later the airboats on Napoleon Avenue are lined up like charter boats. Pickups arriving from throughout the South back up hard and then hit the brakes just so. The boats slide right off their trailers. Darel Bryan, a fishing guide from Leeville, La., has already been out for hours. His airboat does not carry its usual smell of fresh redfish and black drum; it stinks of bleach from washing the decks after 14 bodies in black bags pulled from a half-submerged funeral home were piled on his bow.

Bryan’s airboat is a “big dog,” as his brother Dan puts it–26 ft., powered by a 570 big-block Chevy. The hull is Teflon coated for skimming over wet grass, on which the machine can hit 60 mph. The boats are perfect for shallow, debris-tangled waters, and airboat associations from Texas, Oklahoma, Florida and Louisiana have rallied their members. Bryan sports a ponytail and a goatee, with a lump of chewing tobacco in his cheek. Instead of bow-fishing clients, he guides sheriff’s deputies from Bernalillo County, N.M., wearing bulletproof vests and armed with AR-15s. “Right now, I don’t have a job,” he says, “or a house, either. So I might as well be here.”

It has now been six days since the levees holding back Lake Pontchartrain broke, and except for the purr of Jimmy Delery’s 250-hp four-stroke Yamaha engine, there isn’t a sound as we idle north along Napoleon Avenue out of the Garden District in search of the last waterlogged souls clinging to their homes. The boat isn’t Delery’s; he commandeered it from somewhere. Looting, after all, is clearly in the eye of the beholder: Earlier in the day a CNN crew griped that National Guardsmen confiscated their rented boat for their own purposes; Delery took what he needed to make rescues; the poor grab food and water from neighborhood stores. Delery, a 50-year-old real estate investor, figures he’s pulled 300 people from the waters over the past few days.

But here’s the excerpt that prompted this post:

We pass a floater–a dead man lying facedown, spread-eagle on a blue mattress. “He’s been here for days,” Delery says, munching on barbecue potato chips. That’s when it hits me: Delery is happy. So were Rich and Dillon. Dedicated and selfless, yes, but deep down, these men also enjoy the all-consuming intensity of their task. It’s the unspoken theme of every war story: Calamity gives people purpose, lightens their souls and makes them feel alive.

Of course. Sheepdogs are happiest when they’re working.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *