TAJI, Iraq - Nearly three years ago, one of the largest operations of "The Surge" in Iraq took place as coalition forces launched Operation Phantom Thunder against insurgents operating throughout the country.However, on June 17, 2007, one day after the operation began, insurgents struck back against coalition forces, the Government of Iraq and the people of Taji, sending a message of violence and destroying more than a year of hard work spent improving the educational facilities in the area.
Just days before its grand opening, insurgents set off explosives inside the walls of a newly built school in Malahma, leveling much of the building, which had been under construction since 2006.The destroyed school remained abandoned over the next few years due to high levels of insurgent activity around the area and the services of the coalition forces being needed elsewhere.Recently, a decrease in violence, brought on by a partnership between U.S. forces and a strengthened Iraqi Security Force, has allowed the school to be refurbished.The project was passed on to 2nd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment leaders by their predecessors and work began almost immediately to refurbish the school and give local children a safer way to obtain an education.Prior to the project's completion, children had to walk nearly 10 kilometers to get to the nearest school, taking chances traveling along a busy highway.Even though the Malahma School was closer, the environment was not conducive to learning, said 1st Lt. Eric Richards, an assistant fire-support officer with 2nd Bn., 23rd Inf. Regt.Richards recalled walking through the school for the first time before reconstruction began and was how he was struck by its state of disrepair."It looked horrible," said Richards, a Lacey, Wash., native. "The whole middle portion was gone. [The contractors] actually built about 50 percent of the structure as it stands right now," he said.In an effort to boost the local economy, local contractors were hired to refurbish the school, a project totaling $500,000.Reconstruction began in mid-April and concluded a few weeks ago, with the grand opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony conducted July 24.Lt. Col. Mike Lawrence, commander of 2nd Bn., 23rd Inf. Regt., assisted in cutting the ceremonial ribbon for the new school and spoke during the ceremony."This structure shares a long history from origination of local concerns for the area, insurgent activity resulting in its destruction, and the perseverance of the Iraqi people to see the project to completion," said Lawrence.For Soldiers with 2nd Bn., 23rd Inf. Regt., 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, who are slated to be the last combat brigade in Iraq before the Aug. 31 responsible drawdown of forces, the school's opening is an indication that major improvements have been made over the past few years and serves as a final stepping stone for U.S. forces on their way back to the States."It's a good capstone for the deployment," said Richards. "We're leaving soon, and this has been the best project that we've had thus far."