When he has free time, Staff Sgt. Victor Settles grabs stuffed animals, crayons, puzzles and other donated playthings and piles them into a big buggy.
He throws in an electric keyboard. Then he strolls over to certain neighborhoods in the Green Zone.
Familiar faces come out to say hello. Boys and girls admire the toys and line up to receive them.
He plays the keyboard. The kids sing into a microphone and giggle.
Settles, 34, a surgical technician at Ibn Sina Hospital in the Green Zone, has three boys and two girls back home in San Antonio.
“I miss my kids — this is my closest substitute,” said Settles, who is with the 28th Combat Support Hospital. “If I see them smile, I’ve accomplished something.
“I understand what they’re going through in a war zone. I know about people dying and they do, too. ... I can only wish the best for them.”
Settles, or “Baba Noel” as the Iraqi children call him, gets toys through military-support organizations and from individuals. He tends to get backpacks from Soldiers’ Angels, Beanie Babies — which Iraqi children collect, just as kids have done in the States — from Operation Care Package and CD players from A Soldier’s Wish List.
He e-mails donors photos of kids with the toys to reinforce the feeling that they’re helping.
The choicest toys go to the kids who are patients at Ibn Sina.
Every child seen recently at the hospital was holding some sort of goody.
Some donations are timed just right. During one outing, a backpack that Settles used to tote toys caught a girl’s eye. She put it on and said, “Doesn’t this look good on me?”
“I said, ‘I need it. But Inshallah (God willing), if I get some more I’ll get one for you,’” he said.
That night, he got 30 backpacks in the mail.
Maj. Renee Alford, 49, of Kingstree, S.C., saw for herself what Settles’ toys can do.
“We had a 6-year-old sitting in bed. We were trying to play with him, but he wouldn’t play. [Settles] brought in a pack of toy cars and that did it,” she said. “God, if toys aren’t the universal way to reach kids, I don’t know what is.”
Soldiers sometimes go out with Settles when he makes his rounds. “Parents are out there, watching and smiling,” said Alford, who is attached to the hospital. “Even in a bad situation, people need to feel you are doing them no harm.”
Making his rounds, Settles has gotten to know some Arabic, including the words for “Get in line” and “One at a time.” The kids speak English learned in school.
The kids don’t know a lot of American songs, but they’ll ask for music by Shakira.
Their cell phones might have an Usher tune as a ring tone.
The hospital shelves holding Settles’ donations are full of clothes, coloring books, Hot Wheels, Elmos, coloring books, hair scrunchies and other stuff.
He has a big e-mail list of donors and he says he doesn’t need anything more.
The toys and donors are “almost overwhelming,” he says. On Valentine’s Day, he received 200 boxes of chocolates.
Other groups and people are giving out toys to Iraqi children, too.
But Settles has a soft spot for child patients at Ibn Sina. One of his daughters has had thyroid cancer, so he knows what it’s like for children to be in the hospital.
“I’ve seen a lot of sad things, but when I see kids, that’s the hardest,” he said.