"Wagonmasters" meet old friend, bring gifts to children
December 22, 2009
JEDELLAH SOFLA, Iraq - Near the southeast corner of Contingency Operating Location Q-West was a small farming village surrounded by arid desert.
Concrete buildings, lit only by sunlight through windows, were strewn about the area separated by cinderblock and mud walls from sheep, dogs, chickens, cows, and rabbits. Large sand-filled barriers surrounded everything, separating it from the flat, sandy landscape. The bleat of sheep, voices of children playing, and sound of conversations in Arabic and English were the only audible sounds.
Just outside, a line of heavily armored Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles waited as Soldiers intermingled with dozens of children and men in traditional Iraqi clothing.
Leaders of the 15th Sustainment Brigade "Wagonmasters," 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary), met with local leaders at the home of Doctor Mohammad, the shaykh, or leader, of Jedellah Sofla, for introductions and to give gifts to the village children here Dec. 16.
Other locals in attendance included Hussen Ismaiel Ahnd, another Jedellah Sofla leader known as a mukhtar, and Hawas Naif, a local leader from Al Hader, Iraq, as well as some of Mohammad's brothers.
The male Soldiers sat with the local leaders telling stories and briefly discussing the situation in the area while the two female Soldiers visited with the village women in a separate house, as is customary in Iraq.
Mohammad, or "Doc Mo", as he is known to U.S. Soldiers, had a large dinner of kebabs prepared for the group which they ate with their hands while standing at a long table.
"My children would love to eat with us today because they love to eat with their hands," Col. Larry Phelps, the 15th Sust. Bde. commander and Greenville, Ala., native, said.
In addition to being shaykh, Doc Mo runs a small clinic, has a construction contract with Q-West providing frontend loader and dump truck services, and supports coalition forces by helping maintain security in the area and acting as intermediary between local leaders and coalition forces, Maj. Roger Jackson, 15th Sust. Bde.'s construction officer and Barbourville, Ky., native, said.
Chavo, the 15th Sust. Bde.'s local Iraqi linguist, started working with the U.S. Army as a result of Doc Mo's work.
In 2003, Mohammad helped Q-West leadership to set up a civil-military operations center, CMOC, outside of Q-West to help the local population find work and get the labor forces that the military needed.
At 11-years-old, Chavo went to the CMOC.
"I met Doc Mo, he was a community leader. He started helping me a lot ... he found me a job," Chavo said.
"He started as a labor worker on the FOB ... he started learning English step-by-step." Mohammad explained.
Eventually after learning some English, Doc Mo helped him to get work inside the base.
"[When] I brought him, he [was] still very small," Mohammad remembered with a smile.
Helping coalition forces has not always been easy for the doctor.
"In December 2007 is when he hit an IED on his way to Q-West ... causing him to lose both legs and almost his life," Jackson, who was nearly finished with the third year of his voluntarily extended tour, said.
U.S. forces were able to get to Mohammad fast enough to save his life, but not his legs.
"He's almost like a brother that I never had," Jackson said.
"I was very upset about it."
Ahnd said that it wasn't right that Mohammad helped people only to end up a victim of a roadside bomb.
"He try to do good ... they give him a gift. They cut his legs," he said.
After his recovery and learning to walk around on prosthetic legs with the help of crutches, Doc Mo continued to take care of his village and support coalition forces.
He began working with the governor of the Ninawa province to secure government funding for the village's school, whose teachers were previously paid through a charitable program started by a U.S. Soldier in 2007, Jackson explained.
"Now they're paid by the government," he said.
Mohammad is working with the Iraqi government to attain medical supplies for his clinic which used to be supplied by the U.S. Army, but is no longer able to be.
"Since 2006, nobody gave us [anything] ... all the villages around here need this clinic," Ahnd explained.
After dinner, some of the Wagonmaster Soldiers talked while others wandered around with their hosts and dozens of curious children.
"Give me! Give me!" they yelled pulling at the Soldiers' exposed ink pens and sunglasses, hoping to get some kind of memorable trinket.
Lt. Col. Mark Paget, 15th Sust. Bde.'s deputy commander and Orange, Calif., native, gave his watch to one of the children who asked for it as a sign of goodwill.
"Mark, that may be the best investment you've ever made," Phelps later told him on the ride back to base.
Ahnd gave some of the Soldiers a tour of livestock accompanied by a group of smiling children who pulled at the Soldiers' clothing and vied for their attention.
"Missus! Missus! Let me see!" They called to Master Sgt. Celia Feller, the night operations noncommissioned officer in charge for 15th Sust. Bde., wanting to play with her camera.
Even though there was a language barrier, many of the Soldiers found a way to deal with it.
"You could still understand what they were asking," Capt. Elaina Hill, a Fairbanks, Alaska, native and the 15th Sust. Bde. adjutant, said, explaining how body language helped communication.
The children posed for photos with Soldiers and livestock, played with some of the Soldiers, and led them around to show them different things.
Phelps told Doc Mo that the biggest reason he enjoyed visiting was all of the children.
Other Soldiers agreed that it was a good experience.
"I'm glad I went to actually get out there and mingle with the culture," Hill said smiling.
"I definitely want to go back."
At the end of the visit, Soldiers brought bags and boxes full of stuffed animals, candy, and toys to give to the children gathered in front of the village. They laughed and yelled as they scrambled for the toys.
Phelps said that he wanted to return to bring school supplies to the children in the future and that the village children reminded him of his own.
"I miss my kids," he said.