Seabees repair school house blues

1 May 2003 | Army Staff Sgt. David Bennett

Inside the small six-room schoolhouse, Navy Seabees and local villagers mill around a sand pile with shovels stirring cement grout and water.

The school building is decrepit now, but in two weeks stakeholders hope the building renovation will be something both groups will be proud to call their own.

Local villagers, who live about 45 miles north of Al Kut in the Wasit providence, have adopted the Seabees' reconstruction task as their own as more and more residents show up each morning to assist members of Gulfport, Miss.-based Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 133. The result combines military construction knowledge with regional building methods practiced for centuries.

"The residents were curious when we first arrived," said Petty Officer 1st Class Ernest Davis, a native of Richmond, Va., and a builder with the 133rd. "Once they realized what we were doing, not an hour or two later they were there giving us a hand."

Navy workers were impressed by the local residents' enthusiasm and their efficiency in applying stucco to interior walls, which is a routine application in Iraqi homes and buildings, Davis said.

Everyone involved in the project is confident the school will be open for class to 150 children of Jassan by June 1.

According to Navy Lt. Steven O'Hara, the officer-in-charge of the 133rd's civic action team that is rehabilitating a number of school buildings in the area, the school in Jassan fell into serious disrepair after of Saddam Hussein's regime closed it when the Iraqi dictator had a dispute with the village sheik.

The village school is one of several in the region that Task Force Charlie, which consists of two naval mobile construction battalions including the 133rd, will renovate as part of a major reconstruction effort that many United States military, federal and nongovernmental groups now are preparing to assume.

Many of the area school buildings are in need of paint, new furniture and other moderate repairs. However, the Seabees have assessed that the village schoolhouse will require extensive work. Doorways and windows have become vacant gaps since the wooden doors and glass windows were lost over time through looting and vandalism.

"There is a ton of work up here," O'Hara said. "This is probably the worst (conditioned) one."

In the next two weeks, the Seabees from the 133rd will fashion new doors and window frames and Plexiglas windows. All the work is expected to be completed by mid-May.

Navy Capt. Albert Garcia, commodore of Task Force Charlie, said the school is part of a larger part of the humanitarian assistance effort the task force is undertaking in Southern Iraq, along with work on hospitals, clinics and sewage treatment plants.   

"We're going to work as much as possible as long as we can," Garcia said.

For the people of Jassan, the first day of school will be thought of as a moral victory, according to O'Hara.

"This is a symbol to the people that since Saddam closed the school, once it opens it will be considered a success," he said.