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Pfc. Jimmie Frost, Spc. Daniel Buff and Spc. Gary Hiatt with the 89th Military Police Brigade in Baghdad encourage Ahmed, an Iraqi boy who visits with soldiers, to pose like a body builder. Many of the kids in the International Zone wear T-shirts given to them by troops.
Pfc. Jimmie Frost, Spc. Daniel Buff and Spc. Gary Hiatt with the 89th Military Police Brigade in Baghdad encourage Ahmed, an Iraqi boy who visits with soldiers, to pose like a body builder. Many of the kids in the International Zone wear T-shirts given to them by troops. (Juliana Gittler / S&S)

BAGHDAD — They buy chewing gum from children outside the exchange in the International Zone or sneak food to others on patrols around Baghdad.

Charities, military commands and individuals have donated thousands of school supplies, shoes and provisions to help the children of Iraq, but ordinary soldiers and Marines are also finding comfort and humanity in their daily interaction with local children.

Across Iraq, servicemembers give out candy and water to let kids see a softer side to warriors.

“We’re out there every day working with the kids. Some even recognize us, and remember our name,” Marine Cpl. David. P. Meinhold, a reconnaissance Marine with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit in Najaf, said in an e-mail.

It’s more that just a warm fuzzy.

That interaction helps time pass, helps distinguish the good guys from the bad, and could help the future of Iraq, according to mental health professionals and the servicemembers themselves.

“I think it gives Marines and soldiers something meaningful to do other than fighting. For the most part, [They’re] only fighting a small percentage of their time here,” said Army Reserve Capt. Michael Brand, a clinical social worker with the 1908th Combat Stress Control Detachment. Brand is also an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, College of Public Health.

“It also reinforces the big picture — the mission, which is to liberate and improve the quality of life in Iraq,” he said.

Servicemembers give a more simplistic reason for interacting with kids: to kill time.

“We do mess with the kids. It helps pass the time more. It’s something to do besides just sitting here,” said Spc. Gary Hiatt, with the 89th Military Police Brigade in Baghdad.

Children coming by to sell things and hang around are the only entertainment for soldiers waiting by their vehicles in the International Zone between patrols.

Servicemembers say they don’t put much thought into the interaction. Their families might send gifts to give out to the kids. But many say they don’t feel compelled to help because of guilt or because their commands tell them to.

“It’s just for kicks,” Hiatt said. “We’re bored, there’s nothing else to do.”

Out on patrols, the interaction can serve a greater purpose.

Children have informed soldiers and Marines about weapons caches. They’ve helped tear down anti-coalition posters in Baghdad.

“Sometimes, they’ll help us with stuff. A lot of them like to do things for you,” said Sgt. Nathan Melton, with the 2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry Regiment with the Oregon National Guard serving in Baghdad.

“I think getting out and having [humanitarian assistance] interaction helps distinguish between average folks and the bad guys,” Brand said.

For servicemembers angry about some of their experiences here, interacting with children can dissipate the anger, he said.

“It’s weird. Initially we’re out there holding security, trying to be a hard target,” said Meinhold. “We don’t want to drop our guard. But the kids will run right up to us and start talking to us immediately.”

Servicemembers say the children can get out of hand or mouthy, but they also can be endearing.

“They’ve impressed us. They’re tough. That’s one thing I’ve noticed,” Melton said.

The soldiers also know the positive interaction helps build support for coalition forces.

“When they grow up,” said Pfc. Jimmie Frost, with the 89th MPs, “they may not hate us.”

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