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Soldiers Help Iraqi Girl With Congenital Heart Condition

By Army Staff Sgt. Michel Sauret
Special to American Forces Press Service

FORWARD OPERATING BASE KALSU, Iraq, Oct. 24, 2008 – Rawan, a 5-year-old Iraqi girl, bounced on the couch and clapped her tiny hands, evoking laughter from those watching her.

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Army Spc. Michael Kim of New York City, a member of the 415th Civil Affairs Company, holds Rawan, a 5-year-old Iraqi girl with a congenital heart disease, during her visit to the civil-military operations center on Forward Operating Base Kalsu, Iraq, Oct. 9, 2008. U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Michel Sauret
  

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

From the color of her blue lips, she looked as though she might have savored one grape-flavored lollipop too many. She sang as she bounced, but her voice came out as wisps of air, as if she were playing a joke on her grandparents to force them to listen closely. Her skin is pale compared to the rich skin color of her grandfather and grandmother, who visited with U.S. soldiers here to talk about her condition.

Rawan has a congenital heart disease, an extreme condition that affects her pulmonary arteries and lungs, causing her to talk in soft rasps, limiting oxygen to her skin and causing the blue tint of her lips.

Her family brought Rawan to the civil-military operations center in hopes of receiving help. Soldiers with the 415th Civil Affairs Company and the 1st Battalion, 76th Field Artillery, have been working with Rawan’s family since June, when the mayor of Jabella, Iraq, approached one of their officers about her condition.

“They’re showing everybody they are really great people who really care about humans; doesn’t matter if Iraqis or Americans,” Rawan’s grandfather, Ali Isa Amran, said of the soldiers. “They do care about Iraqi [children] right here, and that’s showing a really good picture of America to all of the world.”

Army Spc. Michael Kim has spearheaded the effort to find good medical care and raise money for an operation Rawan needs.

“I feel that in America we try to help the poor, and I think that just because I’m here in Iraq, it shouldn’t stop me from being an American citizen and doing my duty to serve,” said Kim, a native of New York City’s Manhattan borough. “Not just as a soldier, but as a citizen helping people, because back home I used to send people to the homeless shelters. I used to refer them to food pantries.”

Kim said his drive to serve the people of Iraq comes from his faith and religious studies. He studied philosophy and religious psychology at Yale University, and carries those teachings with him wherever he goes.

Kim is a former Marine reservist with a parachute unit who later served as a Coast Guard officer. He left the military, however, to answer a spiritual calling and became a Dominican friar monk, serving and studying at university monasteries in San Antonio and St. Louis. Now, in his civilian life, he works as a combat trauma specialist and psychoanalyst for a Veterans Affairs hospital in New York City.

It had been 16 years since Kim had last put on a uniform as a servicemember before he deployed to Iraq. He decided to return to the military for a one-year commitment and volunteered for a deployment with the Army. He wanted to serve in a civil capacity, and meeting Rawan gave him exactly that opportunity.

“I think that it has to come down to my commitment to Army civil affairs and also being a former Dominican friar,” Kim said of his decision to help the Iraqi girl. “My previous calling to serve God is also tied to my country’s mission to not just be [deployed] in this country, but to help the people. That’s just as important as finding an insurgent. It helps the community.”

Kim sought the help of fellow soldiers and groups back home to raise money for Rawan’s surgery. He spoke with Iraqi doctors at the National Iraqi Assistance Center in Baghdad to seek their help evaluating Rawan. He helped link Rawan with the Ibn al-Bitar Hospital in Baghdad to have her receive an echocardiogram to scan her heart.

He then contacted medical institutions and hospitals throughout the United States to look at Rawan’s echo screening, which unfortunately revealed how severe her condition truly was.

“Rawan’s cardiac condition has limited her quality of life, and she’s often tired,” Kim said. “Her heart defect has also affected her lungs, so she has trouble breathing. Because of all of this, it’s been a challenge to find help.”

Since taking on Rawan’s case, Kim has slept only four or five hours a night, often working late into the night doing online research and contacting people in the United States and doctors in Iraq to see what more he could do to help.

A group in the United States known as Team Rawan has been raising money, and even found someone to donate frequent-flyer miles to cover Rawan’s travel to a hospital willing to perform the operation. The group is made up of four women: Siobhan Dolan and Lina Raspaolo, both of New York City; Karla Reilly of Montgomery, Ala.; and Heather Foley of Washington, D.C., who together have been able to raise $1,500 and plan on raising more.

More friends in Daytona, Fla., held a party to raise awareness and money. Kim has even started the “Prayer and a Dollar” fund drive, asking servicemembers here to donate their prayers and any money they can spare.

Babylon University in Hillah, Iraq, also has offered to help, providing cardiac tomography imaging. For the operation, Kim is looking at options in India, where doctors are treating children from developing countries and leading the way in progressive medicine, he said.

Kim admitted he’s faced doubt in trying to find a solution for Rawan. It is only because of the support he has received from people around the world that he has found the strength to keep going, he said.

“Luckily, I’ve got soldiers and concerned Americans and others and Iraqis who are very supportive,” he said.

For Kim, though, the challenge is even greater, because his one-year commitment ends in November, and he may not be able to see Rawan’s case carried through in person. However, he said, he intends to keep helping and keep the work going after he returns home, and he reassured Rawan’s family that the next civil affairs unit will continue to work with them and resume the progress already made by the 415th CA Company.

“I have to always remember that it’s a team effort, that I recognize that there are a lot of soldiers and American citizens… behind me and with me, so I don’t really focus on the impossible even though at times I spend a lot of nights worrying about [Rawan],” Kim said. “Every morning I wake up and say, ‘I got people working with me, so everything’s OK.’”

(Army Staff Sgt. Michel Sauret serves with the 3rd Infantry Division’s 4th Brigade Combat Team.)

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Related Sites:
Multinational Corps Iraq

Click photo for screen-resolution imageRawan, a 5-year-old Iraqi girl with a congenital heart disease, fixes her shoe during a visit to the civil-military operations center on Forward Operating Base Kalsu, Iraq, with her grandparents, Oct. 9, 2008. U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Michel Sauret  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageRawan, a 5-year-old Iraqi girl with a congenital heart disease, and her grandfather, Ali Isa Amran, visit the civil-military operations center on Forward Operating Base Kalsu, Iraq, to speak with soldiers from the 415th Civil Affairs Company to help them find medical solutions for Rawan, Oct. 9, 2008. U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Michel Sauret  
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