Eighteen months in Iraq taught Jemal Foster that optimism is a little like fool's gold. There were too many dead, too many wounded and too much daily stress to hope that the next day, even the next hour, would be a good one.
So, just days back on U.S. soil, Foster steeled himself for the devastation at his own front door. "Excuse the house," he joked before giving a hard shove to push away debris.
Inside was a mess of toppled appliances, squishy carpets and a life's worth of memories and belongings that had been tousled about, covered with grimy water, and ruined. Mold covered everything. This is what he could save: his college diploma, a purse for his wife and two unopened Iraqi Freedom backpacks that he'd sent to his daughters.
"I expected the worst, and I pretty much got it," Foster, 35, said. "We took a beating. I never thought I would see anything like this. You got a whole city with nobody home."
He had survived Iraq and had plans to buy a new house, a big-screen television and settle into a life that didn't involve toting a gun or watching his back every second. But the floodwater changed all that, forcing him to rethink everything in his life. His family is homeless. He isn't sure his wife, an accountant, has a job to return to. His best option, he said, appears to be returning to active duty for a year to assist in the cleanup effort.
Foster was among the 3,700 Louisiana guardsmen called up to fight in Iraq. The state's 256th Brigade took heavy casualties, and many counted the days until their tour was over. Those such as Foster -- who trained at Jackson Barracks here -- were rushed home early to face a new threat: the loss of their homes and the reality that Katrina might tax their families as much as the time they spent in Iraq.
Political leaders in here and in Mississippi complained that, with thousands of their guardsmen overseas fighting, their states were less prepared to deal with emergencies at home. Now, thousands of those guardsmen, including Foster, are being asked to leave their families for at least another year to help repair the Gulf Coast. But the request comes as their families are struggling along with the 1 million other residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina to piece lives back together. They are standing in line for food stamps, trying desperately to contact FEMA officials and finding places to live and work.
Foster's first week at home has been a whirlwind of starting from scratch, buying new shoes, registering his kids for school and deciding what to do next.
American flags, proud mamas and poppas and Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) greeted Foster and about 100 others as they arrived from Iraq. Foster's was the first of three flights bringing home the 400 based at Jackson Barracks, on the border between New Orleans's Lower 9th Ward and St. Bernard Parish. Blanco said the storm had been a disaster for the whole state, and that everyone, including the weary guardsmen, would be needed to bring the state back. "We needed them home," she said. "They need your loving."
Foster was met by his wife, Donna, daughters Kayla, 10, Patricia, 8, and 2-year-old Jemal Jr. "We had our efforts over there, and now it's turned this way," he said, his children hanging all over his arms and legs. "We've got some decisions to make."
But first there was a proper welcome in Amite, an hour northwest of New Orleans, where he was born. No good party in Louisiana is complete without some down-home cooking, and in the Foster family, Winnie Foster (Mamee) is in charge of the cooking. There was chicken, chitterlings and all the fixin's to celebrate her grandson's return. The next morning, she said, the two were up around 4 a.m. chatting on the porch. "He said he was still on Iraq time," she said.
After living in Los Angeles for several years, Foster returned to Amite (pronounced "A meet"). He played football in high school and joined the National Guard a couple of years after the Persian Gulf War. His day job was as an inspector for Orkin, with clients including the Superdome.
Foster, a stocky guy who lost 54 pounds during his tour, doesn't say much about Iraq. It's clear, however, that the place took its toll.
"Things blow up all the time in Iraq," he said. "You kind of get used to it. There's a time when you've got to get moving, and there's a time to stay put. We lost quite a few over there, guys that can't be replaced. I don't think that really registers with people. You go through all your training and talking to guys to prepare, but it's overwhelming. If you don't get used to it, you never get no sleep. I don't want to go back there."
"The people there," Foster continued, "they don't mind dying. They can get you anytime they want you, so you have to treat them with respect."
The empty streets of New Orleans reminded him of the corners and roadways he traveled in Iraq, not knowing what he would find.
Foster's grandfather, Shedrick Foster, a Navy man who served in the South Pacific during World War II, had to be evacuated to the St. Helena Parish Hospital because he needs oxygen for emphysema. His eyes lit up when he saw his grandson and his family.
"We got to get out of the way of these hurricanes," said Shedrick Foster, 85, sitting in his hospital room. Since he arrived days earlier, two patients assigned to the next bed had died. "If you want to hear the truth," he said, "I'm ready to get out of here, but God is keeping me here for some reason."
"All I can tell you, Jemal, is do the best you can," the elderly man said. "You got to swim or drown."
The younger Foster plans on living. One pressing need was buying everyone new clothes. He broke his own rule about shopping with his wife and went to Cortana Mall in Baton Rouge to shop with the whole family. His first task: buying sneakers for Jemal Jr.
There were more trips to other stores, and Foster ran into several buddies from New Orleans, some who had gotten jobs in the mall, others who were shopping. He also ran into a member of his unit in Iraq. The man's mother was missing.
"His head is heavy right now," Foster said.
Foster keeps focused on the task ahead. He has to report to Fort Polk on Sunday to continue the demobilization process, and sign up for a year of work to clean up the region. He will get a housing allowance for his wife and other help that he sorely needs.
Foster is determined not to get down. After visiting his home in New Orleans, he has a list of family and friends' houses to check on. He could only reach two.
On so many streets, there was only reason for despair: the clubs he used to visit that had burned down, the school his children attended still underwater. But he did find a reason to smile. One of the houses he checked had no water in it at all. He went around back, and sure enough, there was the 100-quart pot he'd recently purchased to boil seafood. For Foster it was like finding a small piece of the New Orleans he loved, the one with good food and good times around every corner.
He couldn't help breaking a smile. "At least I got my crawfish pot," he said.
Foster and his wife, Donna, their daughter Kayla and their two younger children have been staying with relatives in Amite, La., Foster's home town.