By Sgt. Angie Johnston,3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team Public Affairs, 25th Infantry DivisionApril 8, 2009
FORWARD OPERATING BASE BERNSTEIN, TUZ, Iraq - The Banyas School in Zaggurbanya Village has no running water, zero playground equipment and a serious lack of chalk.
But that's all about to change.
Cpt. Mike Keifman, the chaplain for Special Troops Bn., 3rd Inf. Bde. Combat Team, 25th Inf. Div., and his Iraqi Army counterparts are charged with improving the school before the beginning of the next school year.
Keifman and his team, comprised of Soldiers from his battalion and men from the Iraqi Army's 16th Bde., 4th Inf. Div., visited the school near Tuz April 2, assessing the problems and talking with teachers and students.
The 135-student school supports kids from both the Zaggurbanya Village and the neighboring Sherka Village; they teach both boys and girls from kindergarten through high school. They don't have any air conditioning units, but even if they did, there's no electricity to power them.
The headmaster, Mohammad Abdulla Salih, is full of concern for his students. It's been a long time since his school has been operating to its fullest potential - but seeing the teamwork between CF and the IA increased his optimism tenfold.
"Here's what's going to happen," said Keifman. "I'm going to take this list back, work with the Director General of Education and the city council, and we'll work on the paperwork together. I'll help the DG submit it and once it's been approved by the Ministry of Education, we can get started."
This signals a move away from Iraqi dependence on the help of Coalition Forces. CF isn't supplying everything the school needs - the Government of Iraq is, through the Iraqi Army.
Building good relationships between locals and the Iraqi Army is another fundamental part of the operation; after years of oppression, many Iraqi citizens are still skittish around their military. To help establish trust, soldiers from the 16th Bde. went into Banyas' classrooms, handing out "Iraqi Army Values" dog tags and joking with the children.
Hardi Hassan Mustafa and Shwan Ibrahim Mowlud were two of the IA soldiers mingling with the kids. They knelt and chatted, wiped dirt-smudged faces and ruffled the hair of children who, a year ago, would have run away from them because of the uniforms they wear.
Company A of the Special Troops Bn. often visits schools in the area, so the Coalition Soldiers have plenty of experience dealing with local kids.
"My favorite part about this kind of mission is making the kids happy," said Pfc. Anthony Moore of Gulfport, Miss. "They're always smiling - I love the expressions on their faces."
Moore says he's seen thousands of Iraqi children, and they all ask the same thing, "Mister, give me pen! Give me candy!" Although he doesn't always carry candy and usually gives away all the pens he's carrying, the kids are just as content to cluster around him and practice their English.
When Moore's daughter Kamani gets old enough to ask why he was in Iraq, he plans on telling her he came to help win the hearts and minds of the people. "And you know what' I'm going to tell her it worked," he says.
Staff Sgt. Josh Remmark of Canton, S.D., was excited to have a chance to interact with the kids inside one of the classrooms. "They were all just staring at me," he said, "so I started drawing on the chalkboard and they were saying what I was drawing in English. Those kids are so smart."
"I had a t-shirt with me that was meant for some Iraqi kid," said Spc. Charles Wagner, of Fort Campbell, Ky. "I wrote the word 'elephant' on the chalkboard, and nobody could read it. So I drew a picture and this kid jumped up and said, 'Elephant!' I handed him the t-shirt, and he smiled at me. It's so cool because we're bringing something nice into their lives instead of the chaos they're used to."
"They are always so excited to see us when we go out there," said Keifman, "and that makes everything worthwhile."