BAGHDAD - Soldiers from 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, rolled two handcrafted wheelchairs up a worn road and into the foyer of a small building before a Feb. 10 shaykh council meeting in the Aqur Quf area.
The weekly shaykh council meeting is open to all local shaykhs, and includes both Sunni and Shi'a shaykhs, who discuss local issues, said 1st Lt. Steven DeWhitt, a San Jose, Calif., native and platoon leader with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 38th Infantry Regiment. The meeting was designed to get local tribes involved in the Iraqi government.
"It basically gives the tribes a forum to talk to each other," DeWhitt said.
The battalion commander, Lt. Col. John Leffers, attends the weekly meetings to assist in any way he can.
"The colonel usually walks away with some pretty good information from the meeting because he's talking directly to local leaders instead of [Iraqi Security Force] leaders," said Spc. Thomas Martinez, a native of Bartlett, Ill., and infantry all-source intelligence analyst with HHC.
Three weeks ago two disabled Iraqis, who lacked mobility due to being paralyzed, were identified by local shaykhs, said DeWhitt. Members of the embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team and the U.S. Agency of International Development helped the shaykhs coordinate with U.S. forces to arrange the exchange of two wheelchairs.
The recipients of the wheelchairs were a former Sons of Iraq member and a farmer in the northern part of the Aqur Quf area, both of whom had been severely injured in improvised explosive device attacks.
Leaders from HHC received the donated wheelchairs through a series of channels stemming from a nonprofit organization, said DeWhitt. The parts were bought and assembled in the United States with the objective of enabling the recipients with easy access to low-cost replacement parts.
"Often times, we provide the supplies, the Iraqis do the organization," said DeWhitt.
Each wheelchair was uniquely designed with bicycle tires and white plastic patio chairs, only costing $58.20 to make, which permit all of the parts to be bought in local Iraqi stores, said DeWhitt.
The Soldiers here have been eager to help out in the Aqur Quf area, whether by providing school supplies for the local children or enabling mobility to underprivileged individuals. And the locals have become much more receptive to the presence of Soldiers as a result.
"The locals know that when we come around, we're not here for war," said Staff Sgt. Aldo Gonzalez, a native of National City, Calif., and infantry platoon sergeant with HHC. "We're here to help them out and provide them with any assistance that we can."