NEW ORLEANS — Members of the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division hold sacrosanct the military code that calls for no soldier to be left behind. But as they searched the still-submerged neighborhoods north of downtown Friday, they met with a former soldier who refused to be brought in.
Even with a truck full of troops parked outside his flooded front gate, and a lieutenant colonel urging him to evacuate, Eddie Cooper would not relent. "I'm just an old E5," Cooper said as he brushed the would-be rescuers away, using the Army's alphanumeric designation for sergeant. "You don't have to worry about me."
Soldiers with the 82nd Airborne are among thousands of troops, federal agents, local police and other authorities who are still combing vast submerged quarters of the city. Their principal mission remains the search for survivors.
But with the number of willing evacuees dwindling -- and officials reluctant to remove residents by force -- rescue crews are now spending a significant portion of their time carrying out delicate negotiations with holdouts like Cooper.
Army search teams first found the 63-year-old New Orleans native Thursday and spent 15 minutes trying to coax him from his tiny home. After that effort failed, the search team regrouped Friday and decided to send in more soldiers, along with a senior officer, to try again.
As the troops pulled up, Cooper enthusiastically greeted his visitors and stepped out onto his front porch wearing nothing but blue boxer shorts. Lt. Col. Viet Luong, the battalion commander, pulled on waders and jumped into the knee-deep water to make his way across Cooper's yard.
In many ways, Luong seemed perfectly cast for the role. His family had been evacuated from Vietnam in 1975 when he was 8 years old, giving him an appreciation of the acute anxiety that Cooper now faced. Luong also sought to use his Vietnamese heritage to establish a connection with a soldier who said he had spent two tours of duty in that country.
"Thank you for saving my family," Luong said, showing his respect for American veterans of that war.
"We had a job to do," Cooper said.
"Well, we have a job to do now," Luong replied.
"Oh, no," Cooper said, recognizing immediately where Luong was headed. "I can't come with you."
The two spent the better part of an hour talking. But every time Luong sought to turn the conversation to Cooper's situation, he would smile and change the subject.
Another soldier who joined Luong on the porch, Sgt. Maj. Thomas Shoop, tried to appeal to Cooper's sense of military duty.
"Being an old NCO, you know how hard it is to leave a soldier behind," Shoop said.
But Cooper just waved him off. "Between two tours of Vietnam," he said, "you know I can survive."
Cooper said he had been wounded twice in the war, and his left leg was pocked by shrapnel. On his ankle was a small open wound. His yellow house had survived the flood better than most. The water had barely lapped over the threshold of his front door, and by Friday it had dropped 3 feet.
On his coffee table inside were ready-to-eat military meal packages he had been given by soldiers the day before. But when he asked for more, Luong and Shoop declined, later saying they hoped he might be more ready to leave when he got hungry.
Cooper said he never married and had no children. He indicated he had family scattered across several Southern states but made it clear he wasn't eager to see them. More than anything, he said he was afraid of what might await him if he left. "I don't want to be among those people," he said, referring to early evacuees who had been directed to the Superdome and other ill-equipped facilities. "I just don't want to leave my little house."
He pointed to the water lapping at his home's bottom step. "Next week, it will probably be down even more."
The session with Cooper is just one example of the delicate challenges facing soldiers who were training for Iraq just days before being deployed to New Orleans. Luong said the 82nd Airborne had rescued at least 500 residents in the last five days and helped transport 3,500 by helicopter from downtown locations to Louis Armstrong International Airport.
Luong said he had ordered his troops to carry their weapons on their backs, not in their hands, to send the signal that they were there to help, not fight. He said the only danger his troops had encountered came when they found a suicidal older woman with a pistol in her hands. One soldier talked to her while another came up from behind and grabbed the weapon, which had a round in the chamber, he said.
At another point Friday, Luong's unit stopped to pick up a woman who refused to come unless she could bring her four dogs. After another round of negotiation, she relented when they agreed to pick up one and go back for the rest later.
But their most frustrating encounter was with Cooper.
As Luong and Shoop stood up to leave, Cooper affably shook their hands and said he would happily visit with them again. Back in the truck, Luong ordered one of his soldiers to wait a day, then send over a medic and a chaplain.
"We'll be back," he said.