“This is indeed a dark city and we’re bringing the light. You know wherever soldiers go, there goes the word of God.”

By Elizabeth Rich

Discussion of the National Guard’s clean-up and marshalling of law in New Orleans has included stories both uplifting and maddening: their late arrival on the scene, but also their subsequent heroics; their rooftop-rescues of stranded young children, as well as their attempts to intimidate the press and local officials on the ground.

Last weekend, as the country awaited the arrival of Hurricane Rita and the possibility of deluged New Orleans besieged yet again, images from the Gulf Coast — gridlocked traffic jams, the hunt for gas and failed evacuation attempts — splashed across the screen. And a story from the San Francisco CBS affiliate about the National Guard in New Orleans surfaced on The Drudge Report.

The three-minute televised report went something like this: a male anchor introduced the segment with the following admonition, “We know this next story may cause some of you to snicker, but tonight some military men and women swear that they are getting a dose of New Orleans’ famous — infamous rather —- spiritual life. What they have seen, heard and found has made many a seasoned soldier a true believer. CBS 5’s reporter Janet Yee reports from New Orleans.”

Cut to two clips from Warner Brothers’ Interview with a Vampire (yes, filmed in part in New Orleans, beloved home to author, Anne Rice). One of a shadowy figure in the woods and the other of a full moon accompanied by the following voice over delivered by Yee with perfect news reporterese, “From the beginning, New Orleans has had a reputation from vampires to voodoo, a city of sin.” Cut to a National Guardsmen chaplain dressed in camo, inside a room that appears to be an army barracks, waving what appears to be a small bottle of holy water, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I command you Satan to leave the dark areas of this building.”

When the National Guard arrived in New Orleans, the barracks they set up were often on school campuses. In this particular report, they’ve been living at Sophie B. Wright Middle School, which I was surprised to learn, is now haunted. A clip from the chaplain explains, “New Orleans is also very ingrained in voodoo, cannibalism, witchcraft…”

As the story unfolds, guardsmen and women describe ghost sightings — an apparition resembling a cloud in one case, an image of a little girl in another. Independent of the National Guard, Yee has her own mysterious encounters with the paranormal at Wright Middle School. “You may think I’m crazy, but the first time I walked into this bathroom, I too felt something and it was long before I heard any of these ghost stories. There was a cloud up in the wall in the corner. You see that hole up in the ceiling there? That was freaking a lot of people out.” A guardswoman adds, “I just felt this really creepy presence and on the other side of this wall is a supply closet and that’s really freaky. I was getting cleaning supplies and I heard a girl laughing.”

Scary, huh? I was reassured, though, by one guardsman’s comment, “This is indeed a dark city and we’re bringing the light. You know wherever soldiers go, there goes the word of God.” That did lead me to look up the actual mission of the National Guard.

According to their website, “That mission is to maintain properly trained and equipped units, available for prompt mobilization for war, national emergency, or as otherwise needed.” That last part could cover exorcisms, wouldn’t you agree?

Yee’s report concludes at a destroyed marina where a Bible is found open to Chapters 10 and 11 from the Book of Revelation — the end, the rapture. At a nearby church, also ruined, another Bible is found, open to the same pages. For the uninitiated, Chapter 10 begins with an angel wrapped in a cloud who descends from heaven and straddles land and sea. In Chapter 11, a storm lasts for three and half days while the world gazes at dead bodies all refuse to bury. Eventually, God enters the dead and they ascend to heaven in a cloud when a simultaneous earthquake strikes and a tenth of the city falls and seven thousand are killed.

Ok, I surrender. With a town so steeped in voodoo and cannibalism, we should be grateful the Guard’s got our back.

For the cynics among you, I suggest keeping a close and watchful eye on how the government is handling the rebuilding of New Orleans. That little girl could be laughing for a reason.

Elizabeth Rich is a graduate student at New York University.