Education in Iraq
Soldiers love to visit Iraqi schools. The teachers are welcoming, and the kids are always excited. The children burst into smiles and waves, but seem to be almost nailed to their seats: they do not get up without the teachers’ permission.
The soldiers often arrive just to say hello, but at other times they unload trucks full of supplies: pencils, paper, and books. I visited a school far out in the boondocks near the Iranian border, where the villagers told me no Americans had ever been. In one of the classrooms, children were studying to identify mines and bombs, so they would not get blown up.
Years of war between Saddam’s Army and the Iranians, and Saddam’s Army and the Kurds, and Saddam’s Army destroying Kuwait, and Saddam’s Army versus the two separate Coalitions, have left thousands of tons of ordnance scattered around Iraq. Even if there were no explosives in Iraq, the cities are filled with dangers for children: tons of broken glass, metal shards and garbage harbor microbial perils unknown, on vacant lots where clinics may stand some day. Until then, prevention is paramount.
In the global sense, Iraqi kids are not the most disadvantaged group I’ve ever seen. Any one who has traveled to India or Asia will have a story about how bad things can get for children in some parts of the world. Iraqi kids are not starving, nor are they generally abused or treated as fodder—except by the terrorists. I’ve never seen an Iraqi adult smack a child, although one soldier told me he had once seen such a thing. During a raid, a boy actually tossed a string of firecrackers out as a joke. This soldier was on a humvee, and wheeled around with a machine gun just in time to see the mother run out, snatch the boy by the arm, and start to beat the dickens out of him.
The Iraqis nurture their children, and although some could definitely use better medical attention, the most profound and far-reaching help that the average citizen of a developed country can do for Iraqi children is to facilitate their education. These kids are the greatest hope for improving the region, and while some far-thinking people see this, I have yet to see a library in an Iraqi school.
I’ve seen the U.S. Army hold medical screenings, build schools and playgrounds, deliver sporting gear, and so on, but much of the help for Iraqi kids is coming from Joe Citizen, who has never been to Iraq, through a program started when one not-so-ordinary citizen traveled there and saw the immediate need.
While on a USO tour of Iraq in 2003, Gary Sinise recognized the potential as well as the plight of these children. Once back in the United States, he joined forces with a couple of smart and good-hearted people, Laura Hillenbrand and Mary Eisenhower, and took action to address the educational needs of Iraqi kids. In what he describes as “a few breathtaking and exhausting weeks,” these three dynamos organized Operation Iraqi Children(OIC).
Mary Eisenhower, the President and CEO of People to People International, is accustomed to finding innovative ways to link people in need of assistance with people who have resources of time, money and skills to share. She not only joined the Executive Board, she offered her agency offices as a home base, and even loaned an employee to help oversee the project once OIC went from idea to action.
Laura Hillenbrand’s compassion for children comes alive when one realizes that she has suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome for two decades. She had been a competitive swimmer for ten years, and loved to ride horses, when CFS first struck. She was so profoundly afflicted that at one point she could not even tell time by looking at a clock and she had to withdraw from college. The condition left Laura with limited employment prospects, but she somehow slugged it out and became a gifted author, ultimately penning the widely acclaimed bestseller Seabiscuit: An American Legend. It was a photograph of a young Iraqi school girl clutching a paperback copy of this book –sent to her by the soldier with the camera– that stirred her compassion and steeled her determination to help these children.
Gary often remarks that it was the experience of watching school children trying to learn in squalid conditions with few books or school supplies that moved him to work with Mary and Laura, pooling their clout and resources to form Operation Iraqi Children. When he had the idea for this project, and found out I was writing in Mosul, he contacted me.
Back in Missouri
I have never put my unequivocal support behind any organization, but I was so struck by the progress Operation Iraqi Children was making in Iraq that I wanted to see the operation in action. Before I visited, I asked an expert on nonprofit organizations to check them out; I learned that OIC is in good standing and good order. We also found on a Department of Defense website that the DOD endorses OIC, as does Laura Bush.
After I returned to the United States, I visited Kansas City to see the wellspring. OIC Managing Director Liz Wegman brightened with enthusiasm when she explained that over 200,000 OIC school packages had already been distributed by soldiers in Iraq. About 1,600 volunteers put together those school kits and assembled shipments of thousands of stuffed animals, sports equipment, shoes and blankets. I can only imagine how many kids are sleeping under those blankets and holding those stuffed animals right now. So far, more than 22,000 boxes of supplies have been shipped. In addition to the 1,600 excellent souls who worked up a sweat packing all these goods, the number of donors is far greater.
When I asked Liz if any of the contributors stood out, she was almost afraid to say for fear of forgetting someone, but some of the names she mentioned were: People to People International, Federal Express, Cpt. Jack Meyer, USNR Ret., of the Greater Cincinnati Chapter, Military Officers Association of America; Messiah Lutheran Church; AHC, Inc.; Larry Reid; Airline Ambassadors, the USDA, Mesa Community College in Mesa, Arizona; Jeffrey Linford, ComedySportz, Dave Bogan, and AT&T came up with a $25,000 grant.
As Liz carefully pointed out, however, the list goes on for a mile. Those 1,600 people who have volunteered at one time or another, sometimes in a freezing warehouse, deserve some kind of medal. Some of the volunteers bring their own: soldiers have come to Kansas City to help out on their off time.
FedEx delivers to several cities in Iraq, including Baghdad, Mosul, and Balad. To their great credit, FedEx ships for Operation Iraqi Children all the way to Kuwait, free of charge, and has been doing so ever since OIC’s inception in April, 2004. As I toured the Kansas City warehouse and saw tons of supplies ready to go, I wondered how much shipping would cost. There was probably an entire airplane load of supplies packaged and waiting for pickup.
Liz explained that FedEx delivers the supplies to Kuwait. At this point, the military takes the load, and the pallets go to LSA Anaconda in Balad, where Civil Affairs soldiers take up the task of distributing the donations.
On 18 December, 2004, she wrote:
This evening I went to the ING [Iraqi National Guard] compound – mainly to coordinate another shopping trip to Dahuk – I am trying to buy heaters and blankets for the poor people with no heat. As always when visiting with Iraqis, there is an art to the conversation – you must “make small talk” — it is expected and polite to converse about little things before getting down to business – our conversations will usually flow from insignificant things, to business and back again. Tonight was no exception. I was able to make more plans to work with the ING to help the Iraqi people – we will help the ING get kerosene to their compound, and then they will share the kerosene with me so I can distribute it to the schools and some poor people.
Anyhow, at one point after being there about an hour and a half, LTC Amar asks if we mind if he asks some questions. He first asked about some of our leaders, mentioning Condoleezza Rice – he asked if in America there is prejudice against African Americans. We said that it is against the law to be prejudiced, however unfortunately there are still some people who feel that way. Then he asked a question that almost brought me to tears. He asked us, “Your freedom, the freedom that you have in America, can you feel it? – is it something you can feel inside of you?” I immediately answered “Yes, I feel it very strongly.” He then asked other questions, like, what if your president does something you don’t like – like he becomes like Saddam Hussein – what do you do about it? We explained the balance of power between Executive, Legislative and Judicial. Said that the President just can’t do what he wants. To which he replied, then what is the President for if he can’t do what he wants?
He also asked: what if someone doesn’t like the president and says bad things about him – what happens to that person? We told him that as long as someone doesn’t threaten to hurt the president, that person is free to say whatever he likes. LTC Amar raised his eyebrows at this. Our conversation turned to the towers in New York, why we think they were bombed, and about the evilness of terrorists who choose to murder innocent people. It was a very interesting discussion that will stay with me forever.
Days later, when a homicide bomber detonated his explosives inside the base dining facility, the charge was so powerful it killed 22 people. The blast had such force that a soldier told me one victim’s teeth were found embedded in the chest of another dead body. Because there had been much fighting in Mosul, there were many journalists on hand to report the bad news. Some journalists rushed to take photos and videos of wounded soldiers and civilians as they writhed in desperate need of help. Such singularity of purpose in other circumstances might be admired, but that day left a bitter taste that lingered for months.
Mary stopped writing letters for more than a week, but then sent another one that briefly mentioned the attack, along with another that killed a 19-year-old soldier, Oscar Sanchez. Mary didn’t mention that this second bombing kicked off a serious firefight in which about 20-25 enemy were killed.
Now it is January 3rd. I haven’t written in so long because of several factors. When we found out that it was a suicide bomber that attacked our dining facility that really hit me hard. I try not to think about the ramifications of that – and I am confident that that one horrible incident has caused all military bases to increase their security and vigilance, so that is a good thing. But I just didn’t feel like writing after that. The memorials were wrenching. Then two days after the memorials for the soldiers lost in that bombing, we lost another soldier. He was at a combat outpost in the city and a suicide bomber in a dump truck full of explosives came charging toward his post to try to overcome the barriers and kill the platoon of soldiers that were stationed there. [Oscar Sanchez] held his ground and caused [by firing his machine gun] the driver to detonate his load prematurely, before the truck was able to strike the building. This soldier lost his life and saved the lives of the rest of his platoon. His memorial was yesterday. He was 19 years old, and leaves behind a young widow. Today the battalion is out in force and determined to keep taking the fight to the enemy.
Over the months, I heard soldiers in Pvt. Sanchez’s platoon say great things about the soldier who fought to the end, until an estimated 1,500 pounds of explosives took his life.
Mary also held her ground, as readers will soon see. She never let up caring about the Iraqi people. She wrote:
During our last trip, we filled our humvee with school supplies and drove into the village to their school. It was fun because by this time, most of the little kids knew who we were, so when we showed up at the school they about burst with excitement, squealing and running up to us and giving us big hugs. This is why I like civil affairs and am so sad that I don’t have the freedom to do the same in Mosul . We keep trying, though – we should be delivering the first kerosene heaters to schools later this week.
Major Prophit and her crew planned to bring the Iraqi Army along; it would actually make the delivery. Oftentimes, the American soldiers accompany Iraqi Police or Army, who would hand out the goods to put an Iraqi face on the mission. The Civil Affairs folks were helping to forge a closer relationship between the people and the new Iraqi government. Meanwhile everyone in the OIC chain from Missouri to Mosul was helping the kids.
Although American forces were attacked on nearly every humanitarian mission during that time in Mosul, the Civil Affairs team still rolled out of those gates, led by Major Mary Prophit and sometimes her Iraqi counterpart, Major Sabah. When the day came for the delivery of goods from OIC and the kerosene heaters Mary had mentioned in her letter home, she was accompanied by soldiers from the Iraqi Army along with B Company from the Deuce Four.
I am attaching a photo from the village. These women are sitting outside their home making a thin sort of pita bread – I’ve never seen it so big and thin – it breaks apart very easily so I am not sure how they use it – all my eating experiences so far include regular pita that you use as a plate to wrap your food in – I love their pita bread.
Bob Martin from CBS and Richard Engel from NBC were also there that day, shooting footage in Mosul. Strykers provided firepower and security for the mission, with Iraqi Army trucks nestled in their formation.
They had just finished delivering the OIC goods and were driving out to deliver the heaters to other schools when— BOOM!— a bomb ripped through an Iraqi Army truck that was stuffed with about ten men. The truck kept moving, blowing men out and scattering them up and down the road. Four were killed. According to Captain Matt McGrew, who led the ING training, another four were seriously injured. One man lost both hands, one lost a leg and a hand, and another had serious head trauma and lost an eye. In addition to the shrapnel wounds, all had burns, from an attack that was just starting.
The cracks and snaps from small arms fire was coming at the American and Iraqi soldiers. Meanwhile, Recon Platoon and the Commander responded immediately to reinforce. They arrived at the gruesome scene and sporadic firefight, which the CBS and NBC crews were able to record for posterity. Meanwhile, the heaped and tumbled bodies of Iraqi National Guardsmen lay bleeding on the road, while others roasted in the burning truck.
Lt. Col. Kurilla, Deuce Four’s Commander, said later, “Mary performed incredibly under fire and saved Iraqi soldiers’ lives. She did an incredible job of pulling wounded Iraqi soldiers to safety and treating them. Sadly, one of my favorite Iraqi soldiers was killed; we called him Old Blue. He was a Kurdish Peshmerga and had been fighting for more than forty years. Hard as woodpecker lips. I think he was about 55 years old and had 13 children. There was almost nothing left of him.”
The Commander continued, “Mary immediately took charge of the ‘inner circle,’ while First Platoon B Company under Lt. Jaskolski and SSgt. Lundak fought the enemy along with Recon platoon.” Mary dragged at least two Iraqi Army soldiers to safety—under fire—seconds before the ammunition carried in the truck exploded. Mary’s voice can be heard on the video directing American soldiers to get the Iraqi wounded away from the truck. Bullets were flying and rounds were starting to cook off in the fire as she calmly insisted, “this truck’s gonna blow; we need to get the hell out of here.” Moments later, the ammo created the second explosion.
I’d heard other stories about Mary Prophit from soldiers, all of whom held her in highest regard. Mary’s physical courage wasn’t obvious to me when I first met her: she was always disarmingly pleasant and professional whenever we talked. Much later I found out that Mary is a reservist, and her “real job” is Community Library Assistant at Timberland Mountain View Library in Randle, Washington.
In the following weeks and months, Mary and her crew kept rolling out of the gates into the line of fire. While I was in Iraq, it was strange to watch the vigorous debates at home about whether or not women should be allowed in combat. I would think, “don’t they know that our women are in combat here every day?” Major Prophit got into so many firefights that some soldiers dubbed her “the bullet magnet,” while others referred to her as “Major Contact.”
In the finest people, toughness and compassion sometimes combine with wily persistence. Occasionally during the daily meetings, Lt. Col. Kurilla would start to quash one of Mary’s expensive plans. Budgets were important; but that never stopped Mary. She would mention the Iraqi kids. The Commander has two little girls at home. Mary’s projects almost always found their funding.
I remember Mary suggesting a B-company project to reengineer an open sewage area in Mosul. The Commander balked at the price then rejected the proposal. Mary spoke up about an Iraqi boy who had just drowned there. The Commander went somber for a moment, gave her the go-ahead, but not before getting the contractor to chop the price tag down.
I’ve gotten into trouble with leaders for not mentioning every last one of their soldiers—which I can rarely do—and when Mary learned I was writing this dispatch, she wouldn’t let me forget hers. She wrote:
“My team consisted of myself, Staff Sergeant Bob Park, Sergeant Adam Napier and Specialist Luke Waldo. We have been together as a four-man team for over 2 years . . . As Nape [Sgt. Napier] puts it, we are like a dysfunctional family: I’m the mom, SSG Park is the dad, and he and Waldo are the kids who fight all the time! Seriously, they are awesome.”
The Ongoing Need
Our troops in Iraq are doing excellent work, but they can do a much better job with support from home. That’s where Operation Iraqi Children comes in, and why I visited Kansas City to check them out.
There were three extremely successful voting days in 2005. Now is the time to rush help to the kids who will grow up to run this country. With intelligence and skills they can govern a staunch ally and finally help settle that region down. I have no doubt that these are the kids who can do it.
Nowhere in any of my many dispatches have I asked bloggers, webmasters or anyone else to link to a site and send traffic there. I have included a few links here and there, but I have never said, “please do this.” I am saying it now: Please link to Operation Iraqi Children, and help these kids. I have been in schools all over Iraq. These children are her future leaders, and Operation Iraqi Children is making a difference.
Think of it as a Virtual Private Marshall Plan for the children of Iraq. It’s not just about enlightened altruism; the Iraqi children struggling to learn in poorly supplied schools today are the same leaders that our own children will deal with tomorrow. Today’s generosity can characterize that relationship for generations to come.
For those who wish to bolster the morale of our troops while enhancing the educational experience of Iraqi kids, please visit the OIC website, and put that good will into action.