AL ASAD, Iraq -- A mountain of boxes rises from the flat and dusty landscape of western Iraq but it will be quickly razed by the Marines of the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward).
The boxes, more than 60 of them, are compliments of the Rotarians of the Wilmington (Downtown) Rotary Club in Wilmington, N.C. The boxes, filled with everything from essentials like soap to luxuries like the latest in digital entertainment. It is also interspersed with jerked meat and snacks of every variety. The many goodies will quickly disappear across the dusty expanse of the Al Anbar province.
The task of seeing that the mountain is distributed to those in want – and need – falls to Staff Sgt. Rodney K. Forte, the close battle coordinator here. Who better than the man who controls aircraft in the heat of battle to figure out how to get a mountain of fun distributed throughout hundreds of miles of Iraqi desert – during a war.
Late last year Wilbur D. Jones Jr., director of the Wilmington (Downtown) Rotary Club invited Gen. Robert Milstead Jr., commanding general of 2nd MAW, Forte and a few other Marines to be their guests at a club function. That visit is just one of many elements upon which the Rotary Club’s “Mission Iraq Marine,” which currently targets the forward deployed Marine air wing, is built.
The operation has several foundations according to Jones.
“The commanding general is a Wilmington, N.C., resident with a daughter at Noble Middle School, and another daughter and a son attending UNCW,” adding, “It also doesn’t hurt that he [Brig. Gen. Milstead] is a personal friend.”
Jones went on to explain that, “The 2nd MAW (Forward) includes units from nearby Cherry Point and New River. The Marine Corps has a very strong Wilmington connection since 1941 when Lejeune was opened.” Besides General Milstead, several others also live in Wilmington.
According to Jones the simple purpose of the mission, “Is to provide our Marines with personal comfort items they would not otherwise have available, to make their life in the desert somewhat more bearable.”
There are thousands of Marines on the base at Al Asad alone, but Brig. Gen. Milstead is determined to share the generosity of the eastern North Carolina contributors with Marines from Baghdad to the western borders, and not just with his wing Marines and sailors.
“The generosity of the Rotary Club and the citizens of Wilmington is awesome,” said Brig. Gen. Milstead, “ In a combat environment, it’s the little things from the folks back home that mean so much to our young servicemen and women. Just knowing they care back home is often the greatest gift of all.”
“We are glad some items will be sent to units on the Syrian and Jordanian borders.” According to Jones the Rotarians just want the Marines to know that the folks back home remember their sacrifice and service.
Forte, whose task it is to ensure the packages are equitably distributed is happy to help out even thought he has a full time job helping run the Marine air support here.
“It is great to know that I am helping out my fellow Marines," said the Atlanta native, who will have been in the Corps 17 years next month.
Forte, who expects to be in Iraq for a year says, “I am proud to the central node for distribution, it is pretty important,” and smiles when he describes the excitement of the Marine he lives with when the packages arrive.
“It’s like a feeding frenzy when they come; the people in the barracks love it.”
He jokingly added that the only people who have even the slightest adverse reaction are the Marines who handle the mail. The latest shipment of more than 20 boxes elicited a demand by the postal Marines that the boxes must go. And so they, along with the 40 or so others that recently arrived began to make their way to small and remote forward operating bases throughout Iraq.
Through this effort Forte has developed a deep appreciation for the Rotarians. He admits to knowing nothing about the organization when he visited with the general last year.
“During the dinner they took the time to explain what they do,” said Forte. “They are busy business professionals but still take time to organize efforts such as this; they are an awesome bunch of nice people.”
The Rotary’s motto is “service above self,” and the club has pulled out all the stops putting that motto to action. The club has taken it upon themselves to see that the Marines and sailors of the forward deployed 2nd MAW have all the comforts of home. While this dusty oasis called Al Asad will never really be home, the generosity of the citizens of and around Wilmington ensure the Rotary Club’s mission, led by Jones, make life here more bearable.
Jones is quick to point out that “Mission Iraq Marine” is not a one man job, it is the combined effort of the all the Rotarians and the citizens who contribute that make the mission a success.
“A number of our Rotary committee members, like me, are retired armed forces officers.”
He added, “My ‘right hand man’ is retired Army Lt. Col. Bob Jones who flew helos in two tours in Vietnam; my ‘right hand woman,’ Melissa Hight is the daughter of a career and World War II Marine. They’ve been absolutely essential to our progress so far.”
This is the third shipment sent by the club so far during “Mission Iraq Marine” and it won’t be the last, the project is planned to continue into early September 2005.
“Rotarians believe strongly in our country, freedom, patriotism, the price that must be paid, and in supporting our troops loyally - particularly those deployed - whether or not they agree with the war in Iraq or otherwise. This project is a perfect and natural outlet for such expression of support, and has nothing to do with politics,” Jones concluded.