Operation Back to School brings Soldiers, Iraqi Army, children together

Story and photo illustration by Sgt. Keith S. VanKlompenberg
139th Mobile Public Affairs Attachment
13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) Public Affairs

NUBAI, Iraq — A combined effort between Soldiers, Airmen and the Iraqi Army at Camp Taji, Iraq, brought much-needed school supplies to young Iraqi school children Oct. 7 at Al Abar Primary School – the first in a string of humanitarian efforts called Operation Back to School.

Operation Back to School is a volunteer mission that has been months in the making, spearheaded by Air Force Lt. Col. E. Kent Wong, director of operations, 821st Expeditionary Training Squadron, who said a joint effort between Army and Air Force made this day possible.

Maj. Rob Edwards, brigade public affairs officer and provost marshal with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 155th Heavy Brigade Combat Team and a Saltillo, Miss., native, said the mission began in early August.

“I received an email from Lt. Col. Wong asking for help on starting this project,” said Edwards. “It reminded me of a mission we did in 2004 in the green zone, in which we had asked a church to send school supplies. We found a school that needed help and we delivered the supplies to them. It was something I remember to this day about that deployment.”

Staff Sgt. George Warner, joint node network supervisor with B Company, 155th Brigade Special Troops Battalion out of Tupelo, Miss., and a Meridian, Miss., native, said he put out the word back home to his friends and family to make donations.

“Word has gotten around and now supplies are being sent not only from Mississippi, but from all over the U.S.,” said Warner. “We recently just put together 800 kits for the school children.”

The kits include anything from pencils and pens to folders and rulers, which are put in backpacks for each child.

Warner said the service members work closely with members of the IA as a joint effort to help Iraqi communities.

“This makes a good statement to the Iraqi people that both sides are working together to better the Iraqi people,” said Warner.

When word of the project spread on Taji, many Soldiers and Airmen wanted to volunteer, Edwards said.

“We wanted to make it fair for everyone, because everyone wanted to go to the school and hand out school supplies,” said Edwards. “But we wanted the people that put the time volunteering in the warehouse to get the opportunity to go.”

Edwards said there were many committee meetings with members of the IA, and Dr. Kamouna, an Iraqi education liaison, identified the school in need quickly.

This was done through Lt. Col. Rafed, of the IA.

“This goes along with the concept of pulling troops out of here soon,” said Edwards. “In the past we were taking the lead, now we put the Iraqi forces to lead the project.”

Edwards said the committee wanted to choose a high-need school that American forces had not been to before.

Al Abar school in the Mushada Nahia region, a completely rural area, is very poor and lacks resources, Edwards said.

“We wanted to show the image that the IA is making the connection with its people and that this is their country now,” he said.

Eleven IA soldiers were brought on the mission, performing security and handing out kits to the children.

“The mission was safe and successful and we brought smiles and happiness to the children of the school,” said Lt. Col. Rafed Mohsen Edan, brigade civil affairs officer with the Iraqi Army, through an interpreter.

Edwards said the mission went better than he expected.

“There was a young girl who wanted to go home right away and show her parents what she got,” said Edwards. “She was so excited. We are accustomed to being able to buy whatever our children need for school, and we take it for granted. Knowing that these children don’t even have the basic necessities that we are accustomed to is sad, but seeing the innocence in their expressions and the genuine excitement makes it an unforgettable experience.”

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A young Iraqi school child from Al-Abar Primary School pauses for a picture as she receives a backpack with school supplies Oct. 7 from Operation Back to School. Through the program, 81 girls and 130 boys in a low-income neighborhood received much-needed school supplies.

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Two Iraqi boys wait to receive their backpacks from U.S Soldiers and members of the Iraqi Army through Operation Back to School Oct. 7 at Al Anbar Primary School. Operation Back to School is a joint effort between U.S. and Iraqi Army forces to distribute much-needed supplies to schools in Iraq.

 

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Master Sgt. Michael Thomas, first sergeant of the military transition team, 36th Iraqi Army Brigade, 1st Cavalry, out of Fort Hood, Texas, helps an Iraqi boy put on his backpack Oct. 7 at Al Anbar Primary School. Thomas, along with other U.S Soldiers and members of the Iraqi Army, distributed backpacks and school supplies in support of Operation Back to School.

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An Iraqi boy inspects the contents of the new backpack he received in support of Operation Back to School Oct. 7 at Al Anbar Primary School. The program supplied 130 boys and 81 girls with backpacks filled with school supplies Oct. 7 in a joint effort between U.S forces and Iraqi Army forces.

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Iraqi Army Lt. Col. Rafed Mohsen Edan, IA brigade civil affairs officer, talks to an Iraqi child about school Oct. 7 at Al Anbar Primary School. The IA has been an integral part of the success of Operation Back to school.