By By Pfc. Kimberly Hackbarth 4th SBCT PAO, 2nd Inf. Div.March 22, 2010
JOINT SECURITY STATION NASIR WA SALAM, Iraq - Their backpacks were torn and frayed, the flaps hanging open with books peeking out from broken zippers; they were the lucky ones. The rest of the children clumsily carried everything in their arms and against their chests as they ran inside the gates of the small school in Khandari, a rural area northwest of Baghdad.
With a delivery of new backpacks to hand out, Soldiers from 422nd Civil Affairs Battalion and the 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment "Manchus," followed closely behind the children as they filed into their school March 17.
Children packed together in line, eagerly waiting as the local contractors heaved large bags stuffed with backpacks through the gate. The first group of schoolchildren was wary upon first seeing the American Soldiers led by 1st Lt. James Hester, a civil affairs team leader with Company B, 422nd CA Bn.
"The headmaster brought (the children) out and said, 'We're going to bring the first graders out because they're scared of Americans,'" said Hester, a Tybee Island, Ga. native.
After seeing that the uniformed visitors were there to help, the children smiled and gladly accepted the gifts without any concern about whether they were from Americans or Iraqis. A Nahia council member, alongside school workers and Hester, pitched in to distribute 600 backpacks to the children. The backpacks, purchased with Commanders Emergency Relief Program funds, contained notebooks, pens, pencils, rulers, crayons and markers.
"We donate school equipment to students so they can function at a higher level (in) school," said Hester.
Even though the school year was ending soon for the students, the backpack and school supply donation helps set them up for their futures and to encourage them to continue learning, he explained.
Watching from behind a gate at the entrance of the school, Spc. Jared Bower, a 4th Bn., 9th Inf. Regt., team leader escorting the civil affairs Soldiers was among the few Soldiers on the ground at the backpack donation site and said he saw smiles on both students' and teachers' faces.
"(The children) probably don't have supplies," said the Louisville, Ohio native. "Now teachers won't have to worry about what (their students) are going to write on or write with."
Bower and several other 4th Bn., Soldiers regularly provide security and assist through humanitarian aid drops with 422nd. Hester praised the Manchus for their support of 422nd in being able to continue providing Iraqis what they need and said he believes they are leaving a lasting impression on the local people.
"It's a long lasting reminder of the Manchu Battalion and the things they've done in the area to try to promote a better sense of government," said Hester.
Hester explained that when the Government of Iraq and U.S. forces do projects that improve civil capacity, such as opening a water treatment facility, it might not always be noticed by the children. Whereas humanitarian aid for children helps show them their government cares even for them.
"Today, they saw someone doing something good for them specifically," said Hester.
With their new backpacks hanging from their backs, apprehension gone, the school children smiled as they headed back to class.