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Infantrymen Have a "Back to School" Moment in Baghdad

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

BAGHDAD, Iraq, May 1, 2003 – When Capt. John Montgomery joined the Army, he didn't expect to be the point man for reopening a major university.

Montgomery, a fire support officer with the 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry, 3rd Infantry Division, is helping life return to normal in Baghdad. He is in charge of reopening Baghdad University's College of Agriculture.

The university is on the north side of the city and is in the zone that the battalion maintains. "Every day I came here and attempted to build a rapport between the Iraqi leaders here - the scientists and professors - and the Army," Montgomery said.

With his help, the Iraqi faculty formed a university committee aimed at reopening the campus. Montgomery meets with the committee daily. "I've asked them to prioritize the reconstruction efforts, and they've helped me with that," the captain said.

The university was established in 1952 and employs about 700 individuals. There are 500 graduate students and 3,500 undergraduates. If all goes well, the graduate students will return May 3 and the undergrads on May 15.

"We saw this as an opportunity to show some positive signs quickly," Lt. Col. John Charlton, the 1st Battalion commander, said. "There are a lot of things in this country that will take a long time to rebuild, but this is ready to go."

The college will require infrastructure work. Army engineers estimate about 12,000 square meters of glass alone are needed to repair the windows blown out. "This is work that can be done quickly," Charlton said. "Staff is ready to get back to work."

He said infantrymen reopening a college may sound strange, "but it's all about problem solving." Planning an attack or reopening a college requires planning, organization and resources. He is not surprised his young officers were up to the task.

The scope is daunting. Before the war, the Iraqi army took control of the western part of the campus. It stored a great deal of ammunition in the buildings and occupied some of the dormitories. It set up three anti-aircraft guns atop a dorm.

"The Iraqi leadership must have thought we wouldn't touch schools," Montgomery said. "In almost every school, we found they had stashed ammunition and headquarters in it - same with mosques."

In the vacuum between the Iraqis and the Americans, looters hit the college. Computers, such as they were, were stolen and even the siding on some buildings in the research area was stolen, said Jawad Eidam, a professor at the school. Eidam, who studied in America, said that "since 1980 no money goes into this school. All the money went to pay for wars."

Eidam said Montgomery is excellent to work with. He said the captain has a way with the Iraqi staff that has helped make the project possible. "I hope whoever comes in (to replace him) is as good as him," Eidam said. "If he were in charge, Iraq would be rebuilt in a month."

The Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Aid is starting to pay the university staff, who will receive $20 per month.

Montgomery has enjoyed the experience. He noted that three weeks ago, his unit was at war with the Iraqis "and now that I've gotten to know them and befriend them, it makes leaving here easier. I'll leave with a positive note and be able to tell Americans what these people are like."

The battalion's officers and noncommissioned officers have provided much expertise for opening the college. "We've assessed the communications, we've assessed the water supply with our medical platoon, we've assessed the electrical supply and infrastructure with our engineer company," he said.

The line companies provide campus security, and Montgomery has helped establish a 29-man local Iraqi security force that works on the campus. The committee suggested the men, and the battalion intelligence team screened them.

"Our goal is that by the time the students return, to have a minimal presence on campus to provide some normality," Montgomery said.

The battalion is also helping with the clinic on the campus. Dr. (Capt.) Mike Tarpey is the battalion's surgeon. He has used his medical expertise to rehabilitate the university's clinic.

"The original clinic was hit pretty hard in the fighting," he said. "So we moved them over to the former Ba'ath Party official building. We got it all painted up, got rid of all the Saddam posters and everything, got all the old furniture out. And now we're in the process of moving equipment into it."

As Tarpey spoke, a Humvee with a dental chair poking out the back drove by. The big hurdle has been getting supplies for the clinic. The battalion donated some supplies, and he is working with what's left of the Iraqi system to get more.

The Iraqi medical staff is working with the medics to set up the clinic. "Their needs are huge," Tarpey said. "Before the war, they didn't get any of the medicines they needed. The Iraqis have hypertension, diabetes and many other treatable afflictions. They are suffering the consequences of these untreated conditions.

"By the time I see them, they are in pretty dire straits."

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageDr. Jawad Eidam and Army Capt. John Montgomery stand in front of an Iraqi anti-aircraft gun atop a dormitory of Baghdad University. Montgomery and Eidam are working together to reopen the college. Photo by Jim Garamone  
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