NEW ORLEANS, Sept. 5—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.
“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.
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.