Monday, September 12, 2005

'Ragin Cajun' General Becomes Icon

This man will go down in history for sure.

'Ragin Cajun' general becomes icon

Katrina pulled 'classic military maneuver'

Sunday, September 11, 2005; Posted: 7:54 p.m. EDT (23:54 GMT)

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (AP) -- To troops, he's the "Ragin' Cajun," an affable but demanding general barking orders to resuscitate a drowning city. To his country, he's an icon of leadership in a land hungry for a leader after a hurricane exposed the nation's vulnerability to disasters.

With a can-do attitude and a cigar in hand, Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore arrived after Hurricane Katrina and directed troops to point weapons down in respect for a stunned and stranded population lacking food, electricity and safety.

Each morning, Honore (pronounced AHN'-ur-ay) boards a Blackhawk helicopter at Camp Shelby in Mississippi, 100 miles north of New Orleans, for a humanitarian mission as head of the military's Joint Task Force Katrina.

Honore was born at home 57 years ago during a hurricane, his mother and an uncle always told him. He grew up poor in Lakeland, La., northwest of Baton Rouge, with 11 siblings, once winning a 4-H contest with the family's lone dairy cow, Weasel.

His daughter and friends live in New Orleans. As a child, he spent two weeks at Charity Hospital, where Katrina's flood waters trapped doctors and patients, after he was hit in the head with a baseball bat.

Stepping into a crisis that has drawn criticism of leaders at every level of government, Honore was praised for his compassionate approach to residents and his colorful bursts of instructions to troops, delivered in a Louisiana drawl with spits of profanity for emphasis.

"He's a man of action," said Maj. Gen. Bill Caldwell, commanding general of the 82nd Airborne Division in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. "He knows the area, understands the people and doesn't take no for an answer."

Honore has won over even some of the government's harshest critics, including New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who blasted the Bush administration's initial response to his city's disaster.

"He came off the doggone chopper, and he started cussing, and people started moving," Nagin told a radio station. "I give the president some credit on this. He sent one John Wayne dude down here that can get some stuff done."

The 6-foot-2 three-star general points out that John Wayne was an actor. "I'm a soldier. You get what you see," he said.

With his thin mustache and black beret, Honore has become one of the most visible figures of Katrina. On Sunday he appeared on both CBS' "Face the Nation" and on CNN's "Late Edition," where he defended giving food and water to people who are refusing to leave New Orleans.

"Right now, we want to make sure that we're taking care of the people that are alive, and that we are treating them with dignity and respect, and we're providing food and water for them," Honore told CNN.

He views Katrina as an enemy that pulled a "classic military maneuver," speeding toward land with overwhelming force, surprising and paralyzing the city and countryside and knocking out communications, electricity, water and roads in a "disaster of biblical proportions."

In a journey slowed by fallen trees, Honore headed to Mississippi after the hurricane from an Atlanta base where he trains half the nation's troops for Iraq duty.

Honore said it was as if he entered a football game to coach in which it was the "end of the first quarter and you're down 25 to nothing."

"You can't win the first quarter in a disaster. It's impossible to do it. You got to do the best you can. But you better win the next quarter, take care of the evacuees," he says. "If the first quarter taught us anything, your plan is a plan but it needs to be executed."

On paper, Honore's authority is limited to the military but last week body recovery began after he complained loudly to those responsible for removing them.

"He's intolerant of lackluster performance," said Retired Gen. Charles E. Wilhelm. "He has high standards and he's a sworn enemy of mediocrity."

Outside the Superdome one day with flood waters in rapid retreat, Honore grew impatient when his truck was blocked. "There's room to get by there. Let's go!"

"I don't intentionally try to be tough. As long as the job's getting done, I have nothing to say but praise," Honore says.

He likes the music of Tina Turner and B.B. King, along with country western tunes. He says he'd like to learn guitar someday. In his garden are pumpkins, tomatoes, beans, peas, potatoes and peppers. He loves to cook and shares his vegetables with troops at barbecues.

This week, he'll reunite with one of his four children, a son returning from Iraq after a year of duty. He also has a grandchild.

He gets quiet when he talks about lives he has crossed in New Orleans, like the woman carrying twins, one slipping from each arm.

He feels lucky to be a general, despite "living in a fishbowl."

The hurricane, he says, reminds him life is fragile and makes him glad he passed on more lucrative pursuits to serve his country.

"I'd rather be in the middle of the game, playing hard with little hope of winning than to be an observer," he says.

No one calls him "Ragin' Cajun" to his face.

"But the troops like it, so why not?" he adds.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press.