Operation Helping Hands: A humanitarian mission of the 874 MRD DET
(49th Battalion Commander – Lt. Col. Susan Davidson) Maj. Butler
The seed for Operation Helping Hands was sown during a less than routine PT run. The challenge was to run to the top of a local Riz Gari Mountain outside our facility gates. As we reached for the top, we noticed a contingent of little children following, just not as breathless as we were.
The children were unabashedly welcoming and jubilant at our presence. One curious factor which struck us was the children's lack of proper clothing, particularly shoes, though this did not affect their high level of motivation. After conferring with Maj. Michael Butler, the 874TH Movement Regulating Detachment Commander, 1st Lt. J. Wendy Bernard received the necessary approvals.
On February 19, with the assistance of the 436TH Movement Control Battalion and with the able support of the Battalion's Family Readiness liaison, Lorrayne Mercier-Robertson, Operation Helping Hands was born. A five person committee was formed among the MRD team for oversight, command and control; however all personnel at Harbur Gate are active participants in this initiative. The committee members are Bernard, who is the officer in charge, Sgt. Nicholas Rekoutis, Spc. Shondell Moore, Spc. Barry Gleeson and Pfc. Jonathan Icaza. Committee members and the commander met with the mayor of Zakho and Riz Gari to discuss the operation objectives, plans and events and to obtain their feedback and field their directives regarding matters of most critical need. Our mission objective is to foster a climate of goodwill between the United States and the Iraqi people through local community humanitarian missions.
The distribution portion of Operation Helping Hands was officially launched at 10 a.m. on March 18. Eleven members of our Movement Control Team group visited the Ronahe Primary School to distribute prepackaged school supplies to 135 children, ages seven to sixteen. The mayor of Riz Gari, Khalid Aziz, accompanied us. Also present were the mayor's deputy, his security team, Mr. Khorsheid, assistant to facility manager Mr. Ali. In addition we were supported by Mehmet Bay, translator and Byron Hilyard, a KBR representative.
The children as always captivate our hearts and today was no exception. We visited individual classrooms, grades one through six, age groups aforementioned. In each classroom, we read names from prepared lists and each student came forward to receive her or his gift.
The supplies included crayons, markers, coloring books, school glue, pens, pencils, erasers, notebooks, pencil-sharpeners, folders, post-it notes, construction paper and candy.
Soldiers of the 874TH MRD spent long hours deliberately packaging items so that each classroom group would receive similar items in kind and quantity, to ensure complete happiness among the recipients.
Excess items were packaged for the home-room teachers as class room supplies when needed. The children's expression of gratitude ranged from the shy "thank yous" to outright squeals of delight. Every class recited a welcome as the soldiers entered the room and in one class a little girl sang beautifully for all.
We were then invited to the principal's office where we were offered chai tea. Everyone sat around exchanging pleasantries and the room erupted into a spontaneous session of humor as each soldier playfully exposed the kindheartedness and sensitivity of the other.
Khalid Aziz, the Riz Gari mayor was amazed, and remarked that often they too, in official meetings, did the very same thing, the effect being a light hearted and less stoic affair. He remarked how alike we all seemed in the moment and we confirmed how alike most people are indeed. Maj. Butler, Bernard, the principal, and the mayor exchanged statements of gratitude, respect and appreciation and expressed the intent to continue such missions for as long as we were able. The mayor and the principal called this a historic day that would live on in their memories forever, and a day which solidified the love and admiration they already possess for the American soldier and Americans in general.
As we made our exit, crowds of children gathered around us, insisting on having their pictures taken, naturally we obliged. The children practiced their English by repeatedly asking us "what's your name?"
The children mostly wanted to touch the soldiers, hold the soldiers' hands and some even played patter-cake as well. Most of the soldiers were emotional and grateful for the opportunity to spread such joy. This was a successful launch of Operation Helping Hands and we anticipate repeating the same on future missions.
Future plans for this operation include similar donations to other schools in the Riz Gari district, plans to provide assistance to a local clinic and a continuation of the Partnership in Education, which program is designed to foster pen-pal type relationships to promote cultural awareness across Iraqi/American borders.
Currently we are receiving the bulk of our material support through the efforts of the 436TH Movement Control Battalion Family Readiness Liaison, Mrs. Lorrayne Mercier-Robertson, from Staten Island, New York. We have also received supplies from the classroom of Mrs. Dille-McCoy of the Visitation School in Tacoma, Washington and anticipate shipments from Fort Campbell through Maj. Bauer our predecessor at this location.
We also received some donations from the Purple Heart Veterans of America. In addition we have several individual benefactors of small items who have expressed interest in participating. We also intend to request SERP funds to support our mission.
Pfc. Jonathan Icaza, along with other Soldiers from the 874th Movement Regulating Detachment, hands out prepackaged school supplies to children at the Ronahe Primary School on March 18 as part of Operation Helping Hands.