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Troops Make Lasting Impression With Rustamiyah Residents

By Staff Sgt. Merrion LaSonde, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Feb. 4, 2005 – You only have to look as far as the smiles on the children's faces to know that the soldiers of 1st Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery, have made a difference in the Rustamiyah community here.

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Spc. Timothy Smith of Alpha Battery, 1st Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery, 1st Brigade Combat Team, visits with some students of a school in his company's area of operations Jan. 12. Smith's unit renovated the school from the ground up. Photo by Staff Sgt. Merrion LaSonde, USA
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

"We have made a big impact on the kids," said New Orleans native Staff Sgt. Eldred Stewart, a squad leader with Alpha Battery, 1st Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery Regiment, of the 1st Cavalry Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team. "They will run to us now and tell us they love us all the time. Personally, that makes me feel good. I love kids, and I like to see the joy on their faces when you help them out."

Stewart said when the soldiers first started patrolling, their parents didn't allow the children to get too close. "We gradually earned their trust, and the people are very friendly now," he said. "Some people will come out and offer us tea and bread. That is a great gesture of them welcoming us to their community."

As with many areas of Baghdad, some districts are worse than others.

"When we first took over this zone, we noticed it was a very impoverished area," said Livingston, Calif., native Capt. David Haynes, Alpha Battery's commander. "Some of the largest problems were a lack of essential services, the difficulties traversing the zone of responsibility because of the condition of the roads and the economic prosperity of the citizens of the zone. There is no sewage system to speak of, so we focused on water."

The unit contracted for water to be distributed, and trucks now run every day, delivering 200,000 liters of water per day to the residents. "A long-term project is to work (sewer) pipes into the zones, but that is a long way off and will be picked up by our replacements," Haynes said.

While making great strides toward improving the living environment by repairing or replacing essential services, the soldiers of Alpha Battery have also worked hard to make everyday survival for the citizens in their zone just a bit easier.

"Over the year, we have distributed frozen chickens to the people in the community, supplies to the local schools and recently we handed out some sweaters, and the people really like to get the stuff from us," said Bethlehem, Pa., native Spc. Jonathan Harowicz, a driver in Alpha Battery. "It makes me glad that we are helping them out. When we first went out there, their planting fields were barren. I have seen the fields gradually improve. The irrigation canal is now clean and has water flowing through it because of the pumps we have provided. We had the seed distribution awhile back and they have really come a long way since then.

"The school we renovated is really coming along nicely, too," he continued. "We've painted the building and built bathrooms, and I have seen a lot more kids coming to school. Things have drastically improved."

Unlike some locations of the 1st Brigade Combat Team's area of operations, the Rustamiyah region has a ready industry to bolster the economy.

"We have about 4,000 acres of farm land in our area," Haynes said. "We have mapped out several hundred of the farms, which mostly consist of small 10- to 20-acre lots. Being that it is primarily farm land out there, we decided to focus on the agricultural piece. So prior to the harvest last year, the battalion delivered 375 tons of seed and fertilizer out to the farms in this area."

The soldiers also helped the community start the United Farmers of Iraq Cooperative. "The co-op will give them better prices on their seed and help them distribute their crops after harvest," Haynes said. "The division has purchased some farm equipment to be delivered once this facility is completed Feb. 15."

The co-op's $150,000 price tag included construction of the building, furniture and computers for the offices. "We built it, but it will be run by the farmers in this area and was approved by the Ministry of Agriculture," Haynes said. "This way, we are helping the people legitimize their own government by working with them as well."

After getting the farmers well on their way to prosperity, Alpha Battery was able to switch its focus to other aspects of the community.

"Currently there is no secondary school, but we have a contract in for one," Haynes said. "It will be six classrooms added onto one of the other schools. In an effort to look after the health of the people, we conducted a (medical civil assistance program), which has seen about 200 people. The majority of the cases have been minor coughs and aches, but for chronic problems, we refer them to where they need to go to get the help they need. The people have been very receptive to this."

Of the many changes Haynes has seen in his zone over the past year, one in particular stands out in his mind.

"Each family in Iraq gets a monthly stipend of rations," said Haynes. "One of the farmers we went to give a humanitarian assistance bag to said he no longer needed it. Since we had given him the seed as well as the irrigation, his crops had done so well that he had not needed to get his rations for that month. He also did not want to take the humanitarian aid bag if someone else needed it more. That has been one of our biggest success stories."

With all the obvious improvements the soldiers have been able to bring about in their area of operations, the company has experienced an equally noticeable and positive side effect.

"The folks in our zone are genuinely trying to better themselves and their country, and they are glad we are here," Haynes said. "Because of all this, we have had absolutely no enemy contact in our zone. The people have formed a sort of neighborhood watch, and whenever there was anything going on that looked suspicious, they would tell us. While we were out patrolling one day, a man not even from our zone let us know that some insurgents were trying to destroy the bridge. The people in our community don't let strangers into their area. That keeps the insurgency activity out."

Though the work they're doing is a far cry from the usual mission of a field artillery battery, these troops feel their time has been well spent, and that they will have a lasting impact.

"By doing good things for the children and the families, the children will grow up respecting freedom and not wanting the violence in their country," Haynes said. "At times, I think I didn't join the Army to be handing out soccer balls to kids, but in the grand scheme of things, if that is what you need to do to defeat your enemy, then that is what you do."

(Army Staff Sgt. Merrion LaSonde is assigned to the 122nd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment.)

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1st Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery

Click photo for screen-resolution imageSoldiers of Alpha Battery, 1st Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery, 1st Brigade Combat Team, delivered more than 4,500 school books to the Bayariq primary and secondary boys and girls schools in Baghdad's Rustamiyah district Jan. 12. Photo by Staff Sgt. Merrion LaSonde, USA  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageSgt. Adrian Venegas of Alpha Battery, 1st Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery, 1st Brigade Combat Team, drops off two of the 20 heaters the company delivered to the Bayariq primary and secondary boys and girls schools in Baghdad's Rustamiyah district Jan. 12. Photo by Staff Sgt. Merrion LaSonde, USA  
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