Marines lend a helping hand to tiny, unheated Iraqi school
CAMP TAQADDUM, Iraq — Through a bright teal gate that stands out against the monochrome, dusty landscape sits a little school.
It’s a horseshoe-shaped building with a small concrete courtyard in the center. Off to the side an empty dirt lot substitutes for a soccer field. Two rocks on each end mark the goals.
The tiny classrooms lack heat, so many of the young Iraqi children wear tattered gloves and hats during their lessons. There’s little elbow room for them, packed three to a desk.
“Humble” is a good word to describe it.
But the primary school has a new benefactor. It’s been “adopted” by the Marines of 9th Engineer Support Battalion, out of Okinawa, Japan.
The school is in a small town between Ramadi and Fallujah, an area of Anbar province patrolled by Company A, 2-136 Combined Arms Battalion, 34th Infantry, a National Guard unit out of Minnesota.
To help improve daily life — and therefore, hopefully, improve the security situation — company commander Capt. Adam Gilbertson said he put the word out to other units asking for volunteers to adopt schools.
The Marines with 9th ESB jumped at the chance.
“I thought ‘This is what I’ve been waiting for,’ ” said Lt. Col. Mark Menotti, battalion commander. “Marines are very giving. They want to do projects like this.”
In the days before Christmas, 9th ESB’s Company B Marines built 20 wooden desks for the classrooms and two soccer goals to replace the rocks.
And grander plans are in the works.
“There’s a lot we can do,” Capt. Kevin Bright said. “We are an engineer battalion.”
On Tuesday, the Marines dropped off the desks and soccer goals. The convoy, which went out with the National Guard soldiers, was immediately greeted by smiling children in search of sweets. The kids were persistent and relentless, hounding each Marine and soldier for candy, pencils and paper.
Lance Cpl. Evan Keller, 20, got the kids stirred up by taking their photo and then showing them their image on his digital camera. The kids were real hams, posing with funny faces and jostling for camera time.
“I think they liked that better than the stuff given to them,” Keller said.
Most of the Marines seemed to be as excited to be there as the kids were to have them.
“It was awesome — just interacting with the civilians that actually live here, especially the kids. That was great,” Lance Cpl. An’Tion Aikins, 21, said. “It makes you feel good about doing what you do.”
Projects such as adopting a local school probably wouldn’t have been considered two or three years ago, but it’s the natural progression of improving the security situation, Maj. Patrick Hittle, battalion executive officer, said.
“Instead of just going after the bad guys, we’re trying to assist the local communities,” he said.
During Tuesday’s visit to the school, the Marines surveyed the electrical situation, which Maj. Mark Boone, Company B commander, labeled atrocious. The building has no power and the wiring is a mess.
Boone spent most the visit talking with the headmaster about the improvements he’d like to see.
“He was asking for everything under the sun,” Boone said.
First up is addressing the electrical problems. Hooking up a generator is normally a temporary fix, Boone said, but it was the first solution the headmaster threw out because it would be easy to get fuel to keep it going.
Boone said improving the windows so the building is warmer and adding classrooms are some of the things the Marines might do.
“I think we can make an impact on the future of the children of Iraq,” Boone said.
Possible projects were discussed through a translator Tuesday, but the last thing the school’s headmaster said to Boone was in English.
“Thank you very, very, very, very much.”