Spec. Frank Atkinson, wearing his tan desert fatigues from his recent deployment in Iraq, alternately drove a Humvee through downtown New Orleans streets littered with debris and putrid garbage and held suspected looters at gunpoint with his M-4 rifle.
"It's just so much like Iraq, it's not funny," said Atkinson, of Woodlawn, Ark., "except for all the water, and they speak English."
For a year ending this spring, Atkinson's infantry company of the Arkansas National Guard patrolled Baghdad's deadly Haifa Street, and scores of its members were awarded Purple Heart medals after fighting insurgents. Those war-zone images and instincts came flooding back Friday when Atkinson and 300 other Arkansas guardsmen, wearing helmets and full body armor, rolled into the chaos of central New Orleans.
"It's like Baghdad on a bad day," said Spec. Brian McKay, 19, of Mount Ida, Ark.
The Arkansas contingent is among the estimated 16,000 National Guard troops from 40 states flowing into greater New Orleans to help curb the rash of crime sparked by Hurricane Katrina. An additional 24,000 guardsman and 7,200 active-duty ground troops are committed to relief efforts across the Gulf Coast. Paratroops from the 82nd Airborne Division "locked down" the historic French Quarter on Monday, according to city and military officials.
But the massive military effort remains severely disjointed and hampered by a lack of basic communication between units, Army officers here say. Ground commanders for New Orleans have been functioning without the ability to track the location of some units reporting to them -- something unheard of in Iraq, the officers say.
Much work remains for U.S. soldiers in this gutted no man's land, where looting, drive-by shootings and other crime are rampant. Much as in Iraqi cities, the troops are moving by the hundreds into makeshift bases in schools and other public buildings, setting up checkpoints and 24-hour patrols. The guardsmen have been authorized to seize weapons and detain people.
"We're having some pretty intense gun battles breaking out around the city," said Capt. Jeff Winn of the New Orleans police SWAT team. "Armed gangs of from eight to 15 young men are riding around in pickup trucks, looting and raping," he said. Residents fearful of looters often shout to passing Humvees to alert the soldiers to crimes in progress.
"Hey, stop!" a man wearing a baseball cap yelled to an Arkansas Guard team Sunday afternoon as it drove through the city's Metairie district in Jefferson Parish. "Those people don't live here!" he said, pointing to a white sports car parked outside a large brick home.
Atkinson sped over to the car, hopped out and pointed at it with his M-4 rifle. He and Capt. Derald Neugebauer, 36, of Vilonia, Ark., questioned the two men about looting -- but because they had no radio communication with the New Orleans police, they had to flag down a passing patrol car to hand over the two men.
About an hour later, as dusk fell, Atkinson and Neugebauer were driving down Jefferson Street when the owner of a mini-storage business yelled at them from behind his fence. "Hey, get back here! Those guys just broke into that store!" Across the street, the guardsmen saw two men in their twenties outside a car stereo store with the front window broken in.
Atkinson again swung the Humvee around, and within minutes, the guardsmen had two of the four suspects facedown on the Jefferson Street median. The guardsmen then waved down a passing sheriff's vehicle.
"When I charged a round in the chamber, he got down real fast," Atkinson said later of a suspect.
The guardsmen voiced little hesitation at using deadly force -- a skill honed in Iraq -- on the streets of New Orleans. "If we're out on the streets, we'll fight back and shoot until we kill them. That's too bad but that's what has got to happen," said Spec. Jake Perry, 20, of Camden, Ark. "I didn't spend a year in Iraq to come to Louisiana and get killed."
Indeed, just the smell and feel of a war zone in the city put the soldiers on edge.
"The worst feeling was putting that body armor on," said Spec. Richard Dunlop, 36, also of Camden, who with his comrades has vivid memories of the dozens of Arkansas soldiers who perished in Iraq. "I find myself checking the rooftops. I worry about stepping on something in case it is an IED," he said, referring to an improvised explosive device or roadside bomb.
"I was waiting on a gunfight," he said. "It's weird."
Many of the guardsmen were shocked and angered by the violence and looting. One described 70-year-old women in new Nike high-tops, and stores along the riverfront that looked bombed out.
"The fear in the eyes of the people, the uncertainty . . . people shooting and killing over little bitty things . . . it surprised me. I didn't think it would be that bad in my own country," said McKay, a history student at the University of Arkansas.
But the soldiers said they were gratified to be able to evacuate so many needy -- from elderly residents in wheelchairs, lifted into the backs of U-Haul trucks, to drug addicts jittery from withdrawal.
Meanwhile, conditions for the troops were no better than for New Orleans residents. They slept outdoors on concrete loading docks, living on bottled water and packaged military meals that many flood victims wouldn't eat. They had virtually no power, and initially no portable toilets.
While some Arkansas guardsmen said they had volunteered for hurricane duty, many felt wearied by the back-to-back deployments. "I'm still stressed out. I'm still having nightmares over Iraq -- give me a break!" said guardsman Dominic Nettles.
Sitting in a warm breeze on the riverfront on a recent night, as fish leapt out of the Mississippi and a fire blazed out of the blackness on a distant shore, Nettles and his buddies smoked cigarettes and traded war stories that transported them back to the banks of the Tigris.
"When I came down here, it was just like I was in Iraq. It was unreal," said Spec. Keithean Heath, 20, of Crossett, Ark., shirtless in the heat. "This doesn't happen in your own back yard."