Soldiers show commitment to Iraq with beanie babies
November 27, 2006
KIRKUK, Iraq (Army News Service, Nov. 27, 2006) - Four years ago a compassionate Soldier and a six dollar beanie baby named "Courage" brought an unforgettable smile to 4-year-old Sarah's face. Over a million beanie babies later, that Soldier's commitment to the future of Iraq and American generosity continue to impact Iraq's next generation - its children.
"Beanies for Baghdad," a civilian organization based in Evansville, Ind., donates thousands of the small stuffed animals weekly through Lt. Col. James Barker, squadron commander, 2nd Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment, 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, for distribution to Iraqi children throughout the Kirkuk Province.
Barker, of Whitewood, S.D., was one of thousands of Soldiers in Baghdad when Operation Iraqi Freedom began in 2003. During that tour, Barker frequently interacted with the local population.
"During our 'walkabouts' in the community, I never saw any children with toys of their own," Barker said. "On one occasion, I threw a beanie baby named 'Courage' that my sister sent me into my bag. That day, we were at an elementary school. I saw a little girl about 4 years old named Sarah and I called her over," he recalled.
Barker gave Courage to Sarah, and her reaction to the gift compelled him to do more.
"When we got back from the mission that afternoon, I sent an e-mail with Sarah's photograph to a Web site for beanie baby enthusiasts. I asked them to send beanie babies to me so that we could hand them out to Iraqi children. They accepted my e-mail and published it."
Within five days, about 2,000 beanie babies were headed for Barker for distribution.
According to Barker, about one week later, two individuals back in the United States volunteered to stand up a Web site at their own expense. On May 4, 2003, "Beanies for Baghdad" was born.
Barker redeployed from Baghdad in June 2003, yet the generosity continued. Each successive Army unit designated a representative to receive the beanie baby donations. The program thrived. Then in 2006, Barker again deployed to Iraq, this time to the Kirkuk Province. Once again, he became the point of contact for beanie baby donations.
"We still receive three to 4,000 stuffed animals a week," said Barker.
The toys arrive in boxes and are received by Barker's Soldiers. One of those Soldiers is Pfc. Travis Zinn of West York, Pa.
As the boxes arrive, Zinn and others go through them to ensure that all the gifts are culturally sensitive.
"I remove the beanie baby pigs and angels because those symbols might be considered offensive (by their primarily Muslim recipients)," Zinn said.
"I really enjoy helping the people of Iraq," he continued. "My philosophy is that small things will eventually add up to a big thing and these stuffed animals have a big impact."
The beanie babies repackaged by Zinn are given primarily to infantry units and military assistance teams for distribution to Iraqi children with the help of the Iraqi Army.
A recent mission to distribute the latest donation was conducted by the Iraqi Army's 4th Division with Soldiers of 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team's 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment.
According to Sgt. 1st Class Thomas Nichols, military transition team noncommissioned officer-in-charge, 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, the humanitarian mission was a big success. Not only did the event brighten the day for almost 1,000 local children, but it also served as another opportunity for coalition forces and the Iraqi army to demonstrate their support for the community.
"The Iraqi soldiers did the majority of the gift handouts so that their community can see that the IA are doing things to make life better for folks here, even if it seems relatively minor, like providing toys for their children," Nichols said.