|By Spc. Karl Johnson,
FOB MAHMUDIYAH, Iraq – Lt. Col. Kunk, 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, receives a gift from a student at Al Buhaira Elementary School. U.S. and Iraqi military officials visited the school as part of a ceremony celebrating the completion of a two-month long reconstruction project. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Karl Johnson, 363rd MPAD)
FOB MAHMUDIYAH, Iraq – Amongst the smiles and shouts of excited children, U.S. and Iraqi military officials came together Monday to celebrate the completion of the Al Buhaira Elementary School remodeling project in Mahmudiyah.
During an emotional ceremony held inside the all-girls school, eager students greeted their guests with cheers and applause. Proud young Iraqi students sang while escorting 4th Brigade, 6th Iraqi Army Division Soldiers through the school in order to view first-hand, the progress made during the two-month project.
“When we first visited the school, it was horrible,” recalled Brig. Gen. Mahdi Chark Zier Kadim.
“The building was horrible,” he reiterated, “but the students still had a desire to study and learn. They pushed us to get this project done.”
The completion of the project marks one more success in the continuing effort by Iraqi forces to show support for the communities in which they operate. Iraqi army units throughout the country have begun what Mahdi referred to as a “dual strategy for fighting the terrorists.”
“Projects like these are a powerful weapon against the terrorists because it allows us to fight them in two ways,” said the Iraqi commander. “We will continue to squeeze the terrorists and hunt them down wherever they are, but we will also continue to improve our relationships within the community by completing these projects.”
Mahdi said he predicts these new relationships will spawn the trust and cooperation necessary to build a positive future for all Iraqis.
“Only when we are all working together will we be able to defeat the terrorists,” he said.
The hard-luck school, which nevertheless boasts some of the highest test scores in the country, first came to the attention of U.S. and Iraqi military forces when it was used as a polling location in December’s elections. Littered with broken glass, dilapidated ceilings and crumbling walls, it was hand-selected as a candidate for reconstruction.
“General Mahdi chose this school because it was in the worst condition of any school in Mahmudiyah,” said Lt. Col. Eric Conrad, commander of the Brigade Troops Battalion, 2nd BCT, 101st Abn. Div., and serving as Military Transition Team chief for 4th Brigade, 6th Iraqi Army Division. “When the project started, he not only sent his own soldiers to help with the reconstruction, but also contributed with monetary assistance.”
Struck by the school’s amazing transformation, an emotional Conrad said the building’s condition just two months ago reminded him of the “bleakness” he had witnessed as a young boy visiting East Berlin.
“The first time we went in the school, the children were crying,” said Conrad. “This time, because of the children cheering and singing, it was the Soldiers who had a tear in their eye.”
Also swept up by the emotion of the event was the school’s staff. Overwhelmed by the children’s cheers, several tearful school officials expressed their inability to adequately thank the soldiers who had made the project possible.
“This community has always been proud of its students,” said Conrad. “Now they can be just as proud of their school.”
Mahdi reminded on-lookers that, “This is not the end of our work. We will continue to support our communities and to hunt down the terrorists who threaten them. Our relationships with the people of this area will last for many years.”
“We didn’t fire a single shot today, but based on what we did in that school today, there is no doubt that we got rid of some terrorists,” said Conrad.
In a nation marked by many years of conflict and struggle, it is hoped that the efforts of those who want to build a better future for Iraq don’t go unnoticed, and the cheers and tears of joy brought on by the success at the Al Buhaira Elementary School will prove to be contagious.