By Staff Sgt. Jake Richmond, 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
/ Published October 16, 2009
JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq -- In the H-6 recreation area here Oct. 10, passersby witnessed something they'd never before seen in the housing compound: nearly 100 children running, playing and, more than anything, smiling.
The local Iraqi youths, from 5 to 18 years old, were invited to the base as part of a project initiated by the U.S. Department of State's Salah Ad Din Provincial Reconstruction Team. Airmen and Soldiers here jumped on the idea and combined efforts to coordinate the details.
Capt. Amy White, 332nd Expeditionary Mission Support Group executive officer and lead organizer for the event, said the purpose of the event "was to facilitate positive interaction between local Iraqi children and U.S. troops."
What was the best way to do that? Ask the kids to come over and play.
"We wanted to have a day about fun -- fun for the kids and fun for the troops," said the captain, a Wichita, Kan., native deployed here from McConnell Air Force Base, Kan.
Upon arrival, each child was introduced to their own "mentor," who would stick with them throughout the day. The mentors were all volunteer JBB servicemembers who attended a special Iraqi culture course before the event, familiarizing them with local customs and common Arabic words.
Of course, the fun was the easy part. With outdoor sports courts, foosball tables, dart boards, billiards, playing cards and board games, the H-6 recreation area provided plenty of kid-friendly outlets.
The event planners also had to consider a host of other issues to ensure the day went smoothly.
"As sure as anything that we typically have, there are always challenges that arise as far as the logistics of moving the children, feeding them, (etc.)," said Master Sgt. Donald Peters, 332nd Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron first sergeant, who teamed with Captain White on the overall planning.
Sergeant Peters, a Tallahassee, Fla., native deployed here from Eglin AFB, Fla., said the coordination was successful largely because so many organizations on the base offered their help, especially in areas that involved their job specialties. Food service personnel helped with lunch, doctors from the medical group were on scene to deal with any potential injuries, communications Airmen set up the public-address system, and firefighters briefed the kids on fire safety and prevention.
The sheer volume of the volunteer response impressed the project coordinators.
"We never formally advertised the event," said Captain White. "We had more than 200 volunteers by word of mouth alone."
Of course, keeping track of the children was paramount, so the surplus of volunteers was a benefit. Along with the mentors assigned to each child and 21 Iraqi adult chaperones, off-duty servicemembers also took turns manning all of the entry and exit points in the area to ensure security and accountability.
Elsewhere, dozens of jubilant volunteers could be seen shooting hoops, bumping volleyballs and defending orange-coned goals from determined, fleet-footed kids who clearly knew their way around a soccer ball.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Roger Campbell, a civil affairs specialist, was quick to volunteer after hearing about the event. His job routinely involves interacting with the local population in their communities.
"I've seen some of the kids who are here today, and some of the leadership," he said. "Some of them even recognized me.
"It was awesome. This was one of my best days as a civil affairs NCO."
Some of the kids didn't know exactly what to expect beforehand, but managed to have a good time anyway.
"When my dad told me I was coming, I was happy...but a little scared," said Hussaen, an 8-year-old boy. "Now (at the end of the day), I'm not scared. I really liked the food and the games and the ice cream."
The initial uncertainty, followed by a friendly familiarity, was the basic goal of the project.
"By reaching out to Iraqi youth, we hoped to prove that we could successfully blend our cultures and continue building a foundation of trust with the local Iraqi people," said Captain White. "Even a small degree of trust between our troops and the surrounding communities will likely have an immeasurable reward as we continue to reassure the local people that we are here to support their sovereignty, not take it away from them."
Measured by smiles -- on the faces of both Iraqi kids and American grown-ups -- the event was a success. Since culture-blending is on the agenda, though, Hussaen had just one suggestion for the next go-around:
"Next time, I would love to try a hamburger."