A journalist’s perspective: A CMO mission to Abu Hishma
ABU HISHMA, Iraq —On a brisk Iraqi winter morning, I crawled into the back of a Humvee on its way outside the wire with a platoon of Soldiers from two different units for the second time.
The mixture of Soldiers from 1st Squadron, 167th Cavalry Regiment (Reconnaissance, Surveillance, Target, Acquisition), and 2nd Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery Regiment form a platoon who go on missions visiting local towns around Anaconda several times per week.
My second trip with the group, I am going to gain a better understanding of the civil military operations in which Anaconda Soldiers are deeply invested. Some of them spend their entire deployments in an effort to improve the living conditions of the Iraqis in this area.
Rolling down an inconveniently muddy road, we are glad that today the mud isn’t accompanied by rain.
Our destination: Abu Hishma, an average Iraqi town with two primary schools we will visit.
As we near the first school, we drive through a maze of narrow, walled streets with haphazard electrical wiring just out of reach of our Humvee’s antennas. Residents are lined on each side glancing curiously in our convoy’s direction. While some children laugh and wave, others try their best to ignore the convoy’s presence.
Cows and other farm animals mingle casually along with the townspeople in what seems to be the village center, lined with shops. There are fruit vendors and shops for various household items, all ornately advertised in Arabic painted on the shops’ walls.
After several twists along bumpy streets, our convoy comes to a stop in front of our first destination.
The school ahead of us is set back from the main road, so there is little notice as we disembark from the vehicles, aside from the swarms of children being let out of the school- it must be lunch time.
As we walk into the school, 2nd Lt. Justin D. Helfer of Columbia, S.C., the civil military operations officer for 2/82, meets with school administrators to discuss projects that have already been completed. The Army helped the school initiate improvement plans as they do in other towns, using a sort of reimbursement process.
The reimbursement process works to develop the local villages, but instead of U.S. Soldiers simply going out and doing the work, the Army helps towns contract the work out to neighborhood laborers. That way the local economy is boosted, the employment rate goes up, and the Iraqis are actively involved in improving their own communities, said Capt. Benjamin P. York from Lincoln, Neb., an officer with 1/167 RSTA.
“The main thing is just building relationships,” York said. “When you are working with Iraqis, the first thing you have to do is build a relationship, and that takes a long time.”
York, who goes out often on civil military operations missions, has seen the growth in the Iraqi towns his group has visited since their deployment began. He said he thinks the work being done is making a real difference. “If you look at this school here, we’re doing several projects … I definitely think at this level they are feeling the impact of the things we are doing,” he said.
While still at the first school, Helfer and others inspected the work that had been done which include the replacement of broken windows, and the purchasing of a water pump and a generator. When the troops agree that the work previously decided on had been completed, the Soldiers hand the school administrators a reimbursement- in cash.
As $50 U.S. bills are counted out, the Iraqi school administrators smile with gratitude. Outside, Soldiers unload boxes of donated school supplies which they deliver to almost every school they go to. With an influx of supplies from different organizations and individuals in the states, the Soldiers try their best to ensure the children can capitalize on their education.
While passing out supplies is usually a hectic sprawl of hands outstretched, reaching for anything they can grab, today’s distribution goes a little more smoothly than usual, as a few students are ushered into classrooms where they sit, receiving a few items each. Leaving the first school, we head back to the Humvees and back into the town center.
The second school on our agenda is along a busier street, and many locals are lined on either side as we head into the building. Children tug at the sleeves of Soldiers, asking for anything that is visible on a Soldier’s uniform. “Mister, give me pen,” and, “Mister, you give me sunglasses?” are frequent requests on most missions into Iraqi towns.
While at one school projects are finishing, at this one new projects are just beginning. Inside this second school, which is quite smaller than the first, Helfer speaks with the officials about possible projects there. He says he has been to the school a few times, and nothing has been started. At the reluctance of school officials to take initiative, Helfer gives a timeline of a few weeks to start before he will move on to another town.
The troop’s translator even tries arguing with the school officials, telling them they will lose their chance at help if they do not take action. Sometimes it’s not always easy to find towns that want the Army’s help, Helfer said. If the town leaders don’t want to work with the U.S. Army, then they don’t pursue projects in that location. For the most part though, he said the local Iraqis are grateful to receive the help.
In the school’s courtyard, children mill around the Soldiers pulling security. A row of youngsters who don’t attend the school, have climbed its outer wall to peer down on what is happening inside. One shows Soldiers with a smile that she is holding a leash attached to a cow on the other side of the wall. Another reaches down to pass out a few fresh oranges to the visitors. Differences aside, the children are keenly interested on any move a Soldier makes and seem completely unafraid of their weapon-wielding guests.
As we walk back to our Humvees to return to Anaconda, one Soldier realizes the pens that were in his sleeve before we entered the school are now missing, but smiles and doesn’t care, knowing that one of the children will put them to good use.
Back inside Anaconda’s gates, Chief Warrant Officer Ron-Michael Pellant, the targeting officer for the 1/167 says he thinks the local Iraqis have slightly mixed feelings about living so close to a U.S. base.
“I think it’s a double-edged sword,” Pellant said. “I think for the most part, the local nationals feel safer knowing that we’re here and we’re patrolling through their village …I think they feel safe seeing us drive by quite a bit.”
He spoke about some of the projects that have been done in the past, and commented on the importance of water treatment plants.
“If you’ve been out in this environment at all, you’ll see that these people are pretty poor,” Pellant said. “I mean, they’re walking to watering holes with cans, and buckets, and pails, and then filling them up with water and walking back to their houses.”
Pellant said by providing Iraqis with the resources to improve their water and the way it is distributed, it is making a big difference in their lives by ensuring they have clean drinking water and that the water comes to them, instead of vice-versa.
He also said he believes the general attitude towards U.S. troops in this area is changing. This may be due to a level of trust that is being formed by providing the Iraqis with the chance to help themselves.
“When I went into some of these villages months and months ago, you wouldn’t see children at all,” he said. “Now when you go out there, as soon as a Humvee pulls up, children come pouring out (of their houses).”
After a few trips out with this group of Soldiers, it is clear that they are doing one of the most important jobs in Iraq. Their dedication to helping the Iraqi people is breaking down barriers where barriers have been built, and are replacing them with jobs, assistance, and supplies from the other side of the globe, ensuring them a better chance at a future.