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Soldiers Use Program Funding to Aid Iraqis' Return to Normalcy

By Staff Sgt. Ward Gros, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service

SOUTHERN IRAQ, Aug. 26, 2003 – Helping Iraqis re-establish normalcy in cities that have survived two wars in 12 years isn't something that happens overnight.

Col. Lawrence Larsen, commander of the Army Reserve's 171st Area Support Group here, says he is beginning to see gradual improvements in the town of An Nasiryah.

Improvements such as restoring electrical power for six hours a day have helped the entire city, Larsen said. A water treatment plant and sewage system, both on Larsen's wish list, would cost millions of dollars that are not immediately available. But making smaller, yet meaningful, improvements has become easier, thanks to the generosity of U.S. service members, their communities back home and the Commander's Emergency Response Program.

Larsen and other commanders can now request up to $50,000 per project that would help stabilize Iraq through the program.

"We go through a grant-writing type of process where we identify the projects we could work on, the impact that these projects would have on the community, and cost," said Larsen, a reservist who in civilian life is a college biology professor in North Carolina.

Larsen is using the program to help three orphanages in An Nasiryah. The Army Reserve's 402nd Civil Affairs Battalion sponsored orphanages for boys and girls ages 6 to 16, and another for younger children and babies, in April. Before most of the civil affairs team left the area, Command Sgt. Maj. Bob Szakal of the 171st ASG took up the sponsorship for his unit.

"When the 402nd Civil Affairs asked for someone to take up (sponsorship of) the orphanages, I raised my hand," he said. "It's something that really tugs at my heartstrings."

Szakal, a Vietnam combat veteran, collected money from soldiers and bought stoves, refrigerators, fans, televisions and bed frames, all on the local economy. During his first visits to the orphanages, he brought a doctor to provide medical help and engineers to assess facility improvement projects. The engineers' appraisals for structural repairs will be submitted through the Emergency Response Program.

Szakal also wrote to family, friends and co-workers at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College in Salisbury, N.C., where he is a dean in civilian life, as well as to members of his church.

"People back home want to donate clothes and food," he said. "They really want to help." Szakal said he would like to see cupboards in the orphanages' kitchens, which lack shelves and storage space. Soldiers bought kitchen chairs and tables.

The frustrations and hardships of everyday life in An Nasiryah - a town where the Marines encountered some of the fiercest fighting during the initial combat of Operation Iraqi Freedom - have affected the ASG's support program for the orphanages. Donated food was stolen from an outside storage room. Soldiers have since put bars on the windows and a lock on the door. Fans were installed to keep the room as cool as possible in 140-degree heat.

The Americans have helped, said the director of the orphanages, who gave her name simply as Amira. Szakal has been very good for the children, she said.

The 171st ASG has supported the orphanages for the past month, and even though significant progress has been made through initial purchases and a request for Emergency Response Program funds, Szakal said he would like to provide more.

"Right now I see a lot of trying," he said. "Our biggest success is letting them know that somebody cares. We want people to know that we are here to help and not fight. In a way, seeing the children smile helps me explain why I'm here."

(Staff Sgt. Ward Gros is assigned to the 171st Area Support Group in southern Iraq.)

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Dr. (Lt. Col.) Peter Weina, assigned to the 804th Medical Brigade in Tallil, Iraq, examines a girl's eyes at an orphanage in An Nasiriyah. The 171st Area Support Group sponsors three orphanages in the town.  
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