CONTINGENCY OPERATING LOCATION TAJI, Iraq - U.S. and Iraqi Army Soldiers delivered kits filled with school supplies to Iraqi schoolchildren at Al Waleed School Dec. 6 near Contingency Operating Location Taji, Iraq.
A volunteer committee founded Operation Back to School, delivering its first gifts in October and performing seven missions total to improve the lives of schoolchildren in Iraq, said Maj. Robert Edwards, a committee member with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 155th Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 155th Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary).

Program volunteers assemble the kits or assist with the distribution at school sites, said Lt. Col. Kent Wong, a program manager for Operation: Back to School with the 821st Expeditionary Training Squadron, 321st Air Expeditionary Training Group, 321st Air Expeditionary Wing.
"A lot of the schools are very poor, in a poor area, and a lot of the school kids don't have the basic necessities," said Wong, a Houston native. "Some of the kits we give the school kids, they've never seen some of the supplies before. It's great that we're able to provide this to them."

Volunteers gather to fill the kits and pack them into boxes every Friday afternoon, said Edwards, a Saltillo, Miss., native. This includes special kits for teachers, to help better educate their students, he said.
Every week, more volunteers join the ranks of service members working to educate the next generation of Iraqi leaders, he said.
Area children come from families in varying financial states, so some do not have access to the same school supplies as others, said Spc. Raheem Townes, operations specialist with the 1479th Civil Affairs Detachment, 1st Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division.
The kits contain everyday items children need for school, said Spc. Lorraine Perez, an Operation Back to School volunteer with the 3666th maintenance Company, 96th Sustainment Brigade, 13th ESC.

"We put in three folders, a Composition note book, loose paper, colored pencils, an eraser, a sharpener, scissors and a ruler," said Perez. "I think they're going to appreciate everything they have and take care of it."
The committee for Operation Back to School has solicited donations, using its Web page and advertisements in the Taji area, said Edwards.
"(Service members) send word back to their families and friends and then, by word of mouth, it spreads," he said. "The word's gotten out. We've received donations from all over the country."
Edwards said the operation saw a huge response from schools, organizations, other units and individuals.

"Up to this point we've gotten over 5,000 kits, donated over 500 soccer balls and we put together two sets of soccer goals to leave at the schools," he said.
The mission focuses on children who attend rural schools with anywhere from 300 to 400 students, said Edwards. The schools are outside the major city areas and have had little exposure to U.S. Forces, he said.
Joint Forces move the packed boxes to schools where Iraqi Army Soldiers distribute them to the students. Because these missions are a surprise to students and faculty, the children can be leery at first, he said.
"The kids have been lied to; they've been told we're evil and this, that and the other by the bad guys, the insurgency," he said. "We're here to counter that and show them that we're humans and we're there to help."
Edwards said sometimes the children are unfamiliar with the supplies, but with the aid of an interpreter, the items' uses are explained to them. The children respond well to the Soldiers' presence and accept the gifts, he said.

"It's fostering a partnership between them and us, as well as showing Iraq's future leaders, the children in the schools, that the Iraqi Army is there to help them," he said. "They are not something to be feared, like they have been in the past under (Saddam Hussein's) regime."
The program is a step toward helping the next generation of Iraqi citizens, said Wong.
"The school supplies may only last for a couple months, but I think the long-term benefit of this is the relationship between our country and the country of Iraq," he said. "The people, the kids, will recognize that America is (here to help) them and they care about (them)."