AL ASAD, Iraq -- The 6th Civil Affairs Group, working with Soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 109th Infantry Regiment (Mechanized), delivered school supplies and other gifts to children at an elementary school in Hawran Wadi, Iraq, Oct. 8.
The team of Marines and Soldiers conducts civil affairs missions at least twice a month, each time bringing something to the civilian populace rarely seen under the tyranny of Saddam Hussein.
Hawran Wadi is a vast farming community. If there were official city lines drawn, the school would be somewhere near the center. Many of the children have to walk five kilometers to get to school. Some must walk as far as eight.
Despite the obstacles, the school’s population has multiplied dramatically. Many of the residents were displaced by Hussein’s regime, and now that it’s gone, the people have gained a new focus.
“A lot of these people were forced to leave their homes when Hussein built Al Asad,” said Capt. Michael J. Riotto, the fire support officer for 1st of the 109th, and Croyden, Pa., native. “In 1998, this school had nine children attending. Now, it has 70.”
Greeted by smiles and waves, the Soldiers and Marines ensured the safety of the surrounding area before continuing with the mission. In a nation where insurgents sometimes attack crowds of children to disrupt U.S. aid, it was a necessary precaution.
While Riotto and members of the 6th CAG talked with the school administrators, Marines and Soldiers began passing out backpacks filled with notebooks and pencils, and stuffed animals donated by Our Lady of Consolation Church in Wayne, N.J.
“This allows us to positively impact an area that has been ignored for years,” he said. “They knew we were there to help. The whole atmosphere is very open and congenial, especially working with the kids. The kids are just great.”
Corporal Brian E. Marema, member of the 6th CAG and Columbia, Md., native, said the attitude of everyday Iraqis is slowly changing, evidenced by the warm welcome the civil affairs mission received.
“The kids are always happy to see us, and they’ve always trusted us,” he said. “But now, more parents are allowing the kids to come up and interact with us, so they’re starting to trust us, too. To me, that’s progress.”
Riotto’s battalion served as the security for the 6th CAG. As the main security element for Al Asad, 1st of the 109th operates daily with Marines, a sight increasingly common in modern military operations.
“We are one team, there’s no ‘us versus them,’” he said. “We work well with Marines, because there’s a mission to be done and we accomplish it.”
The Army battalion’s professionalism is obvious to the Marines of the 6th CAG. Staff Sgt. Ronald B. James, of Batesburg-Leesville, S.C., said that in his work as a civil affairs Marine, he has seen security battalions grow complacent, but not the 1st of the 109th, and that allows his team to do the job they came to do.
“I always say, ‘stay in your lane,’ and our lane is to win the hearts and minds,” he said.
With their Army brothers providing security, the 6th CAG can stay in its lane without worry.
When the mission was complete, supplies had been delivered and a group of Iraqi children had learned that United States military personnel were more than men with guns.
“The administrator and teachers we talked to were very thankful for the supplies,” Riotto said. “All in all, it was a very positive experience.”