Marine veteran lays down rifle to provide aid in Iraq

Caleb Drown, pictured here at the Khazir displacement camp at Hassan Sham, Iraq, on Monday, Nov. 7, 2016, went from serving as a Marine to relief and development work after noticing a gap between the U.S. military and the populations it seeks to protect.


By CHAD GARLAND | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 8, 2016

HASSAN SHAM, Iraq — In a war zone, there are two armies: the one doing the fighting and the one aiding fleeing civilians. Caleb Drown has served in both in Iraq, first as a Marine and now as an aid worker.

On Monday, he was overseeing food distribution at a camp for some of the nearly 40,000 Iraqis forced from their homes by the sometimes fierce fighting to rout Islamic State militants from Mosul.

Drown, 33, from Melrose Park, Ill., is deputy country director for Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian aid organization working in Iraq. Since the 9/11 attacks on the United States, Drown had been looking for a way to make a difference.

After finishing emergency medical technician training and half a bachelor’s degree, he joined the Marine Corps in 2004. He deployed to Iraq’s Anbar province with II Marine Expeditionary Force in 2006.

“I thought I was going to save the world with an M-16,” Drown said Monday, while working at the camp.

It was during that deployment that he realized there was a divide between the military and the civilian population the Marines were working to protect.

“I just saw the need for there to be some (humanitarian) surge to fill the gap,” he said, referring to the surge of U.S. troops in Iraq in 2007.

Now he is a member of that other army helping those fleeing the Iraqi offensive against the Islamic State group in and around Mosul.

At the Khazir camp near Hassan Sham, about 20 miles west of Mosul, there were about 1,300 families as of Sunday. Another 811 were registered at a second camp nearby, which officials believe will soon reach its capacity of about double that.

Matthew Nowery, Samaritan’s Purse country director, said the Khazir camp went from a few dozen residents to thousands in a matter of days, as the Iraq army-led offensive reached more populated areas last week.

He and Drown were overseeing the distribution of food rations from the World Food Program to roughly 200 people. Several workers stacked monthly family food rations — flour, rice, sugar, salt and other dry goods — on rows of wooden pallets, while others registered waiting recipients.

Families dragged off their share, more than 70 kilograms (about 150 pounds) of food and cooking oil, to their blue and white quonset huts arrayed in long rows.

But, while humanitarian organizations have been working since the summer to prepare for the influx of fleeing civilians, Nowery said, there still aren’t enough tents for those who have already fled, a fraction of the anticipated total.

“You can imagine if 1 million people [flee] in the next 30 days — which I think will happen — we will have a real crisis,” he said.

Internal funding, largely supplied by U.S. donors, allowed Samaritan’s Purse to preposition supplies and train its local staff of 200 in first aid for physical wounds and psychological traumas, Nowery said. Getting a step ahead was critical.

“Once you get behind on this thing (the displacement crisis), you’ll never catch up,” he said. “You’ll be playing catch up until they go home.”

An expansion of the Khazir camp, which is managed by Kurdistan’s Barzani Charity Foundation, was underway, but for the time being some families were living in makeshift shelters of tarps and foil emergency blankets tied to the camp’s outer fence.

Outside one of these a small cage containing a pet songbird hung from the fence. The bird’s owner peeked out from behind flaps of plastic sheeting, but would identify herself only as the mother of Aus, one of her three children. She said they had arrived five days earlier from Mosul’s al-Samah neighborhood and for 2 1/2 years before that “we were in hell.”

“We saw the soldiers and they saved us from Daesh,” she said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group. She said she could recount many horrors, but she refused to relive them.

As Iraqi forces faced fiercer resistance in Mosul’s eastern districts and the suburb of Gogjali Monday, the flow of fleeing civilians seemed to have dried up from what Drown said had been a trickle at first, then a river. He was preparing for flood gates to open in coming days.

Since the end of his enlistment in 2008, the Marine veteran has worked to bridge the civilian-military gap in conflict zones, first for the U.S. Agency for International Development in Afghanistan, then a relief and development nonprofit in South Asia, before joining Samaritan’s Purse in Iraq in April 2015.

“I loved the Marine Corps,” he said, and he doesn’t regret serving his country, which he said has in turn served him well.

He completed his bachelor’s degree while on active duty and a George Mason University graduate degree on the G.I. Bill afterward. He bought his first home with a Veterans Administration guaranteed loan, and relied on his military background at USAID, where he was designated to translate military speak into a civilian dialect for his colleagues.

As a former sergeant, that took some getting used to, he said, since he was often the agency’s liaison with senior military officers and had to resist the urge to salute whenever a colonel walked into a room.

The difference as a civilian in the humanitarian sector, he said, is that he feels more freedom and autonomy. But what he initially found lacking was the camaraderie he felt with other Marines, “living together, sharing the same mission, moving in the same direction.”

Living with his wife and their two sons, ages 9 and 6, in Iraq’s Kurdish region, Drown has finally found that with Samaritan’s Purse. He is on “one giant adventure...with a larger team,” he said. “I would say I’m fulfilled now.”

Also satisfying he said, is that he now wears a cross on his chest, rather than an eagle, globe and anchor, keeping the faith through works done in the name of his Christian beliefs.

“It takes a lot more than an M-16 to save the world,” he said.

Twitter: @chadgarland

The Khazir displacement camp at Hassan Sham, pictured here on Monday, Nov. 7, 2016, is situated about 20 miles from Mosul, Iraq, along the road that connects the city with Irbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region.

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