Warriors find their softer side dealing with the needs of Iraq's citizens
Stars and Stripes June 20, 2003
HABBANIYAH, Iraq — Staff Sgt. Shawn Gibson patrols the streets of his sector heavily armed — with a smile and compassionate heart.
It’s the softer side of a warrior.
More than an effort to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people in the poverty-stricken area he patrols, it’s something the 38-year-old leader of soldiers wants to do, he said.
“I enjoy people,” Gibson said. “I was raised to treat everyone equally. … American soldiers are the most compassionate soldiers there are.”
Soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division, the first to storm into Baghdad on April 7, thought they were on their way home when word came that they were to take a detour to quell increasing violence against U.S. troops in Fallujah and surrounding areas.
It was a blow to morale, troops say.
“I was really looking forward to seeing my family,” said Pfc. Joshua Scherick, who celebrates his 21st birthday on Thursday.
The soldiers find a bit of comfort in the thought that they’re here because they’ve been told they are the best.
“I guess we should take this as a compliment,” Scherick said.
Gibson, with 3rd ID’s Company A, 4th Battalion, 64th Armor Regiment and others patrol Cooley Camp and Civil Camp, named by British forces in the 1930s when they set up villages to house employees and their families working at the nearby airfield.
Gibson, an Abrams tank commander, temporarily has traded his tracks for the wheels of a Humvee, making his way through the poverty-stricken streets to assess the villagers’ needs — and some of their wants.
In both Cooley Camp and Civil Camp, soldiers have rid soccer fields of the mounds of trash, painted goals and supplied soccer balls to keep children entertained, said 1st Lt. Maurice Middleton. Schools are getting fresh coats of paint and nongovernmental agencies are delivering school supplies, he said.
Emir Adan Ali, 55, told Gibson the townspeople need a water purification station. Badly.
For the most part, the villagers welcomed the troops.
They are welcomed, until they get the job done, Ali said.
“The situation is good, after that, go away,” Ali said, his Arabic words translated by his nephew who speaks broken English.
For the moment, Gibson put aside sadness over news he had received earlier — a death in the family, the second in the seven months the soldier has been deployed to the Middle East.
He focused on Ali.
The poorly stocked health clinics can’t treat all of their patients, Ali tried to tell him — patients seeking relief from ailments ranging from coughs and bad teeth to stomach problems, high blood pressure and thyroid disease.
That, too, is changing. Physician’s assistant 1st Lt. Monica Casmaer, 29, and a crew regularly visit four clinics in the region, delivering medications, supplies and expertise to treat patients. Most of the clinics were cleaned out and damaged by looters, she said.
The team members treat the patients they can, those suffering from diarrhea, respiratory ailments or heat rashes. Casmaer gives others her word she’ll do what she can, telling a boy suffering from cancer that she’ll work to replenish the medications he’s run out of.
To others, she offers apologies.
“That’s the hardest part, but you have to look in their eyes and say ‘I’m sorry, I can’t help you.’ ”
Residents slowly return to the one-time empty village, vacated during the war by frightened Iraqis. But they are coming home to sparsely stocked food markets and no pure water, said Omar Abed, 39.
“We are a peaceful town … but now we are seeing some good. Everything in time,” said Abed, prompting a huge grin from Gibson.
“My good man, you understand us,” Gibson said. “Yes, everything will take time.”
In a home that Gibson asked to see, he learned a family of four adults and four children live crammed into two bedrooms and a living room. There was no running water. Dishes were stacked in the sink; human waste sat in the hole in the floor surrounded by ceramic tiling, the customary Iraqi toilet. The bathroom door was kept shut.
But a trained warrior, Gibson isn’t fooling himself into thinking that tea with the emir will stop the shooting.
“Our motto is ‘They shoot one bullet at us, we shoot 1,000 at them,’ ” Gibson said.
When force isn’t necessary, Gibson comes armed with a smile, a handshake and compassion.