U.S. Troops Help Iraqi Kids Back to School

It was not the sort of job Lt. Col. Drew Ryan expected to be doing in Iraq.

The commander of the 223rd Military Intelligence Battalion, part of the California National Guard, was the self-described "catalyst" responsible for overhauling and reopening the Al-Khedera Elementary School.

The school was one of many to have gone through a massive rebuilding program, funded by the coalition, managed by the soldiers, and undertaken by local contractors.

With the help of a team of soldiers, Ryan located the schools, liaised with the community leaders, assessed the work needed, employed contractors and managed the project.

"I've never drawn up contracts for building schools before," he noted. "When we arrived here in March, our mission was to destroy the enemy. It is kind of a unique role reversal now. We are out meeting people, we are in the community and we are helping to rebuild a nation."

In a rural area to the northeast of Baghdad, Al-Khedera, like all schools in Iraq, was a victim of severe underfunding. As Brig. Gen. Vincent Boles, commander of the 3rd Corps Support Command explained, "The need is so great. Any money that the regime spent, they put it into palaces or riches for themselves. … If you saw what these schools were like before we got here, they did not put it into these schools."

From Roofs to Ceiling Fans

Ceiling fans and air conditioners have been installed in the schools — a necessity with summer temperatures soaring well over 100 degrees.

But with many schools lacking window panes, desks and even roofs, much of what was needed was on a more basic level.

"Atrocious doesn't even begin to describe the condition of some of these schools," said Ryan.

So this Tuesday, under a blazing summer sun, troops from the 223rd Military Intelligence Battalion gathered at the school with their commanding general and handed it over to scores of excited parents and children.

Also present was the local sheikh of the province. It was with his approval and guidance the soldiers were able to complete their project.

The impact of such projects is wide-ranging, according to Boles. "This is the way to build a future for this country. It makes a significant impact — it builds the future for the children."

He added: "These children have a different view of what Americans are and what America stands for. When you go to these children at a different time and say 'We want to attack Americans' they have a different perception of what they are attacking. And knowledge is power."

‘Winning Hearts and Minds’

Like many young soldiers involved in the project, Capt. Chris Caldwell, who was in charge of paying the local Iraqis for their work, agreed.

"It is a great achievement to be out here and to be part of this program," he said. "We are here not only to win the war, but also to win the hearts and minds of the people. And we want them to understand that American troops aren't here to harass them and knock on their doors late at night, but to help them out, to get their country restarted again. And the best way to do that, we think, is by taking care of their children."

Caldwell also highlighted the effect such projects have on the morale of the soldiers — a morale heavily dented by the daily attacks against coalition forces — calling it, "the best way that lower-ranking units and soldiers on the ground can make contact with the Iraqi people."

And contact, Caldwell stressed, was the best way to bridge the cultural gap, giving the soldiers an opportunity to understand Iraqi culture by developing relationships with the people.

"We would never have had the opportunity to have so many soldiers interact with so many people and children without this kind of program," he said.

Where the Future Lies

But the soldiers' work is not without dangers.

Insurgent attacks — though not on the scale seen in some of the more restive areas of the country — are a regular occurrence.

As they continue to work on community projects, Caldwell explains, they believe that, gradually, they are succeeding. "People are helping to protect us by reporting bad people in the area. We do have attacks...but that hasn't really affected our program here."

Whatever the numerous benefits are, one thing is certainly clear — the teachers and pupils of Al-Khedera Elementary School are happy, much happier than they were seven months ago.

For Sagban Farhan Mohammad, the headmaster, a personal dream had come true. "We are very happy to see this building so beautiful," he said.

Today, the school opened its doors to children who will, for the first time, be able not only to learn in a community rid of any reference to their former leader and his regime, but will be able to conduct their learning in an environment suitable for 21st-century schooling in Iraq.

It may be only a tiny step in a country ridden with daily violence and instability, but progress is being made.

Almost inaudible over the screams and yelps of excited children, Ryan concluded: "Our investment in the children is a focus towards the future, because that's where the future really is."