In November, after six weeks on the job as a Red Cross Hurricane Katrina volunteer, Rob Lindsey of South Carolina experienced debilitating back pain.
"I'm generally good with pain," said Lindsey, whose relief assignments in New Orleans included emergency response vehicle driver, fleet maintenance and everything in between. "But I could barely move."
It was 7 p.m. Lindsey maintained he'd be fine till morning, would just ride out the suffering. Terry Cooney, his supervisor, insisted on taking him to the makeshift hospital at New Orleans' Civic Center.
"Terry waited forever with me," Lindsey said. "He said, 'We are the only family we've got right now. This is why I'm here.'"They got home after midnight, said Lindsey, who recovered fully and was able to return to work after one day.
"That evening showed me what kind of man Terry is," he added. "He puts his money where his mouth is."
Cooney, Lindsey and a dozen other volunteers had to step aside before C-44, the last Red Cross mobile feeding operation in New Orleans, came to an official close April 16.
Crae Arnette, who was brought to New Orleans as a job supervisor as senior officials dismantled the C-44 operation and dismissed long-serving volunteers, addressed one of the unit's daily morning briefings the last week of March.
Volunteers lost count the number of times she stated, "No one's done anything wrong."
As of press time, no Red Cross volunteers have been charged as federal investigators look into allegations of fraud and deceit throughout the Hurricane Katrina/Rita/Wilma relief effort.
The average Red Cross disaster relief operation lasts 18 to 30 days. The mission is to provide immediate relief, to help disaster victims get back onto their feet.
As the response to Hurricanes Katrina/Rita/Wilma grew 10 times larger than any previous Red Cross operation, some volunteers were asked, or chose, to extend their initial three-week deployments.
Ben Byboth, a Louisiana Red Crosser whose final volunteer cap was that of public affairs contact for New Orleans, told the Alternative that questions about Terry Cooney were outside his domain. But it was his understanding that Cooney was not dismissed from his duty as site manager. His assignment was not extended. His position was given to someone else.
"Volunteers can apply for three-week stints," said Byboth the first week of April. "His final extension did not get signed."
As for not seeing the end of an operation, "It is just how it goes," said Byboth, who referred further questions to Carrie Martin of Red Cross national headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Martin did not know what C-44 was or who Terry Cooney is but said, "Out of respect for our volunteers, we feel it is inappropriate to comment about the reasons behind a volunteer's departure."
Regarding questions about the not-for-profit's care of volunteers who served with hurricane relief since September and then were let go with less than a week's notice, Martin emphasized that all volunteers have opportunities to speak with staff health professionals and mental health professionals as they are out-processed at the conclusion of their deployments.
"Should the parties agree, a referral is made with the volunteer's home chapter for follow up," said Martin.
But Cooney did not out-process. He said that was done in his absence, at the end of yet another 90-hour week for the disaster relief volunteer, as he cleared his belongings out of the motel room he had been assigned as a Red Cross volunteer.
Cooney said Red Cross officials stated that they "E-ticketed" him because he failed to show up for out-processing on his "assigned date." Cooney said the term E-ticket means that voluntarism is terminated with cause. Martin had not returned calls by press time to confirm this definition.
Cooney maintains that he told his supervisor the day before that he would be unavailable to out-process on the day he was expected.
"I told them after seven months of service I needed a day to myself in order to pack and figure out where I was going," said Cooney. "They had no problem with other volunteers missing their out-process date and processing out days later. I said, 'What is the big deal?'"
A tall bonfire, singing and some live music. Drumming. Volunteers sharing contact information as they head home just in time to prepare mentally, physically, emotionally for the upcoming hurricane season. The opportunity to turn out the lights and close the doors on the largest disaster relief operation in the history of the American Red Cross. Closure.
"All I wanted was to be the one to 'hand back the key,'" said Cooney.
Instead, his long-standing team was sent home, with all new faces to shut down the final feeding routes — to say good-bye to families fed by Red Cross volunteers for seven months.
"My question is — will I ever get to deploy again?" Cooney asked. "Will I get to serve with the Red Cross again, as a disaster relief volunteer?"
Upon word that he was no longer C-44 site supervisor, Cooney said his already busy cell phone came alive with calls from around the country — fellow vols who had served under him and wanting to know what the heck was going on.
"My heart goes out to him," said Joe Apicelli, a Connecticut caterer and Red Cross volunteer who served not only in New Orleans but in Houston and Waveland, Miss. "How he loved people. Every day, at our morning briefings, Terry helped me have the best day of my life. So much energy and enthusiasm in his message. Motivation. You could see it on people's faces. We couldn't wait to go out and do our job."
At this point, Cooney remains in New Orleans, the city he has given his heart to.
Alternative staff writer Melissa McReynolds concluded her second American Red Cross deployment as a disaster relief volunteer in New Orleans earlier this month. She can be reached at .