AL ASAD, Iraq -- The Marines and sailors in Marine Aircraft Group 26 are going above and beyond when it comes to winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people.
Shortly after arriving at this former Iraqi air base, a few of the service members in the headquarters squadron began collecting toys, sports gear and kids’ clothes to donate to those who need them most throughout western Iraq. The participation has increased and they’ve collected more than 15,000 items that they’ve donated to the Iraqi people with the help of members of the 5th Civil Affairs Group, 2nd Marine Division.
Lieutenant Col. William A. Tosick, MAG-26 executive officer, said the idea of collecting items came up after being introduced to the Web site www.anysoldier.com. According to Tosick, something happened during his tour here last year as executive officer of Marine Light/Attack Helicopter Squadron 167 that brought out his sharing and caring side.
“I was out flying one day searching for bad guys and I was leading the section,” said the AH-1W Super Cobra pilot who calls Jacksonville, N.C., home. “Whenever I fly I try real hard not to fly right over the houses, I try to be a good neighbor, but I flew over one house and standing in the courtyard was a little girl with a bright red dress on.
“She looked up, saw the helicopter and got scared. She ran to her mom and planted her face on her mother’s leg. I continued the mission, but I wanted to land and apologize because that’s not what we’re here to do.”
Tosick hasn’t forgotten the girl in the red dress and now that he’s back he wants to show the community that the service members here care about being good neighbors. Assisted by Lt. Cmdr. Terry Eddinger, MAG-26 command chaplain who introduced him to the Web site where people offer to mail items for service members here, they’ve requested items the Iraqi children can use.
Eddinger, a reserve sailor from High Point, N.C., who’s a seminary professor in his civilian life, has been overseeing the task of collecting items and coordinating with the members of the civil affairs group to take them to areas where there are needy children.
“[Lieutenant Commander Eddinger] has been doing a great job calling all his contacts and through the folks at anysoldier.com,” said Tosick. “We provide them with some of the good photos the civil affairs guys have taken for us.”
And it hasn’t been easy; Eddinger said he had a difficult time tracking down the members of the civil affairs group because at that time the project started there were two groups here transitioning. Once he tracked down who would take the items out to the community he had to figure out what items he’d be asking for.
“I went to lunch once and ran into an Iraqi interpreter who I sat down with,” said Eddinger. “He gave me a whole list of things the Iraqis would like and I sent it to all my friends back home. The list was distributed widely; people passed it on to other people and I started getting responses from folks who were sending stuff to us.”
The types of items they’ve been collecting include shampoos and soaps, school supplies, soccer shoes, soccer jerseys, candy, dolls, and necklaces. Eddinger also sent an e-mail to the sergeants major in the squadrons letting them know that if they had any of those items and didn’t know what to do with them he could put them to good use.
Several Marines and sailors in the squadrons have taken up the project themselves and have gathered approximately 3,500 items to donate.
“Some of the items come from churches, businesses, civic groups and individuals,” said Eddinger. “There’s also a lot of involvement from the squadrons, so this is not my project, this is a MAG-26 project. I oversee it and coordinate some things, but I couldn’t do it alone.”
In charge of counting, sorting and itemizing the hundreds of items that come in regularly are Petty Officer 3rd Class Daniel B. Wise and Petty Officer 1st Class Glen Christman. Wise, from Warrenton, Va., and Christman, a native of Valparaiso, Ind., are religious programs specialists in the group who serve as chaplains’ assistants.
“We’ve been busy building up ‘coalition forces,’” said Christman. “The Iraqis like seeing us not just with weapons in our hands chasing bad guys, but also giving them something they can use.”
The sharing folks in the U.S. receive thank you notes from Eddinger and Christman as a token of appreciation. “We do it to let them know that if they ever want to send anything else we appreciate it,” said Christman.
“It’s really amazing,” said Eddinger. “A lot of people, especially my students, appreciate that I came here and in some ways they would like to do something similar themselves, but they can’t.”
With a strong foundation and making a difference in the lives of many Iraqis, the program is going strong and there are no plans of terminating it.
“As a Cobra pilot I know that we’re not going to win their hearts and minds by flying over their houses and scaring them,” said Tosick. “If we can provide them with clothes and sports gear maybe we can do it then.”
Gathering donated items for members of the 5th Civil Affairs Group to deliver to schools, hospitals and families throughout the Al Anbar province, the Marines and sailors in MAG-26 are putting smiles on the faces of many local children, making brighter days for the people of Iraq.
- For more information about the service members reported on in this story, please contact Sgt. Juan Vara by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org -