Thursday, April 7, 2005

MS Guard builds bridge between American, Iraqi Schools

By Sgt. David Foley

KALSU, Iraq — If education is the key to success, soldiers from the Mississippi Army National Guard are working to ensure the success of Iraqis in their area of operation.

The 155th Brigade Combat Team, which is spread through five forward operating bases in southwestern Iraq, has developed a program to improve the education system in the area while allowing students in Mississippi to learn about the Iraqi culture.

“We want the people to be comfortable with us being here,” said Agusta Collins, 155th BCT commander. “If we can convince the people that the real reason we are here is to spread peace and prosperity through their country, and give them the opportunity to be successful then they will open up to us a lot better.”

Having the local civilians on their side is something Collins said would be a benefit for everyone.

Soldiers stationed at Forward Operating Base Kalsu have been conducting anti-mortar foot patrols in the farmlands around their post since they arrived in Iraq. While conducting the patrols, they have built relationships with many of the people in the area, which has in turn increased the security of the camp and is beginning to provide opportunities for them to help the local population.

Soldiers routinely stop and visit with the locals while on patrol, and that has proven to be a benefit to everyone involved.

The bond that the soldiers have formed with some of the locals has lead to information that has helped in the capture of insurgents and weapons on more than one occasion, and has provided a unique opportunity for the guardsmen to help out the local schools.

“We’ve been out and looked at the condition of a lot of the schools. A lot of them are in pretty poor condition and we are doing a lot of rehab projects to make them better for the kids,” Collins said. “The kids don’t necessarily have the tools to learn. They don’t have pens, pencils or paper and even books in some cases.

After finding out the condition of the schools near the 155th, Collins started searching for ways to help the children get a proper education.

“We have all kinds of schools back home, and if we can get each of those schools to adopt a school in our area of operation …we can become a liaison between the schools back in Mississippi and here. We can come up with the things like pencils and paper, and maybe raise funds for book bags for the kids,” Collins said. “We can also try and connect the kids together.”

There is a language barrier that will need to be remedied before the children will be able to correspond directly, but Collins said he is also working that issue.

The program is still in its infancy phase, but many of the people in Mississippi are already finding ways to help.

“We have made contact with the Department of Education in Mississippi, and they are working the issue and trying to promote it also,” he said. “Since we are beginning to get more and more active in the community, the locals are beginning to accept us a little better.”

Several soldiers with the 155th BCT took advantage of a routine foot patrol to visit with the locals and distribute school supplies while searching for signs of insurgent strongholds.

Staff Sgt. Stevie Knox, personal security guard, 155th BCT, lead a small patrol through the farmlands along Route Tampa, which runs along the south side of FOB Kalsu on March 13. Instead of carrying candy for the children, he carried pencils and paper for the children.

“We don’t give them candy,” Knox said. “Their teeth are bad enough. They can use the pencils for their school work.”

The soldiers’ influence on the locals was evident in the way they were greeted with smiles and handshakes.

As the patrol passed by one of the more modest homes, the occupant, Farhan Falih approached the team’s interpreter and invited them to join him for tea.

After contacting base camp and posting a security detail, Knox and a few other soldiers obliged the gentleman. Once inside the one-room cinderblock house, they kneeled on the floor and Falih’s mother brought out a pitcher of hot tea. While sipping the beverage, Knox spoke cordially with Falih and asked about his family and their condition of living.

Filah said his brother had passed away and he took in his wife and their six children, which makes his life difficult because there are no jobs in the area. However, he said he was glad to see the military presence because there are no more “bad guys” around.

Knox paid for the tea with a hand full of pencils, disposable cigarette lighter and a half-dozen “thank yous,” then got the patrol back on line to the local school.

On the way to the school, Knox’s patrol passed several children and gave each of them a pencil or two and promised to leave more at the school.

Once the patrol reached the school, they discovered it was closed and wouldn’t open until two days later. They pressed on with the mission of searching for enemy fighting positions and vowed to return when it opened back up.

During the eight-mile road march, children followed along asking for more pencils and candy, while other farmers gladly took time to talk with Knox.

Knox said the patrols are a good way to identify areas of concern, but winning the trust and talking with the people is what pays the largest dividends.

“Periodically we stop people and we ask them things, and sometimes they say interesting things,” Knox said. “So we document it and take it back to debrief.”

“Over the last couple of weeks, the citizens of Iraq have started coming to us and saying, “We know where some weapons caches are. We know where the bad guys live.” And I think all of that is because they are becoming more comfortable with us being around,” Collins said. “With them having the belief that Coalition forces are here to help them and give them a better way of life, they will work with the coalition forces and not with the insurgents.”

Collins said there are plenty of people willing to help, both in Iraq and Mississippi.

“I get a lot of e-mails from folks wondering what they can do to help and I tell them that one of the things they can do is be a part of the effort that we’ve got going,” he said.

Collins said with enough support from people in the U.S., he believes the program will be such a big success that it will continue even after the 155th redeploys to Mississippi.

“If we can connect the two schools to each other – where you’ve got a school in Mississippi communicating with a school in Iraq – and the kids are communicating with each other, at that point we can pull out of it,” he said. “We are just the conduit getting it started.”

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