Marines open last legacy school before shipping home

14 Aug 2003 | Army Sgt. Mike Sweet

Dozens of teachers and students in An Najaf, Iraq joined 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment Aug. 14 in a ribbon cutting ceremony that marked the last First Marine Division legacy school to be reopened before the Marines return home.

The Al Gary Secondary School for Girls, which was heavily damaged during the war, was the target of a $72,000 renovation that was supervised by the Seabees from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 4, Air Detachment, based in Port Hueneme, Calif.

Since the end of major combat operations on May 1, the division has focused a great deal of man-power and funding to repair dozens of schools in southern region that had been damaged or neglected due to the war with the former regime. In An Najaf province alone, the Marines and Seabees have repaired 13 schools.

The legacy that the Marines want to leave Iraq with is not one of war, but a legacy of freedom and education for the children of Iraq.

"It is appropriate that we celebrate education here, where the written language began," said Lt. Col. Christopher C. Conlin, the battalion commander, to the crowd that gathered around him at the newly rebuilt school.  "Surely, educated people are a free people."

Now that the Marines are starting to go home, the job of repairing the rest of the schools fall to San Francisco-based Bechtel Corp., who was awarded a contract to repair much of Iraq's infrastructure.  Bechtel is currently farming projects out to local contractors, which puts Iraqis back to work and puts more money back into the economy.

The task of repairing the Al Gary Secondary School for Girls was enormous task, according to Chief Petty Officer Mark E. Kraninger, the Seabee project liaison. Between damage done during the war and by looters afterwards, the school was far removed from a place of learning.

"This place was devastated," said Kraninger, a resident of Nora Springs, Iowa.  "From the ceilings to the walls this placed was destroyed."

Visitors to the school were greeted with freshly painted white walls with bright blue trim.  Aside from cosmetic repairs, the school now has new electric, lighting, ceiling fans and bathrooms.

"The best part is that the school was put back together with seized (Ba'ath Party) funds," said Kraninger. "The money to fix the school up came directly from the 1st Marine Division."

Unlike other school projects, the two-month renovation was done exclusively through local contracting. For this project, the Seabees oversaw the work done by the Al Hawrai Co. of An Najaf.

"They did a great job," said Kraninger.  "All I did was just check-up on things and made sure they met their deadlines."

On average, the contractor employed 30-35 workers ever day of the project, according Hazem Fadil Sabaz, the owner of Hawrai.  

"(Sabaz) has done such a good job," said Kraninger. "That the education department has hired him to oversee all the school construction projects in the province.

"This was a big project but not very hard," said Sabaz, a resident of An Najaf.  "My company has built university buildings and factories."  This project is an important one because it is for our children, out future of Iraq."

Although the school was heavily damaged during the war, some of the problems to the school, built in 1979, were caused by neglect from the old regime.

"Since 1990, Baghdad would not replace anything in our school," said Aiwaiu Sahaib, a 14-year teacher at Al Gary and instructor of Islamic Studies. "The building was falling apart."

The need was unique because the school teaches girls only.

"Our school is very important because in Najaf girls are special," said Sahaib.  "It was horrible because I felt I was only giving my students only half of what they needed to know."

With the building complete and school only a few weeks away, the Marines' legacy is what Sahaib will be teaching her girls this year.

"We support the Americans because they brought us freedom," said the Islamic studies instructor.  "I will teach my girls that we got our freedom from the Coalition and then they will tell their families."

The students will have more than just a new school, however. During the reopening, more than 120 donated book bags from America filled with school supplies were passed out to students as part of the 'Backpacks for Iraq' program, the brainchild of Army Sgt. Kathryn J. Utecht, a Reservist with the 432nd Civil Affairs Battalion, Green Bay, Wis.

This was the first time she passed out book bags from her grass roots campaign to get more than 2,000 back packs for the children of An Najaf, Iraq.

She has received word that a semi truck full of backpacks and school supplies is making its way from Madison, Wis., but she still needs more help if she is going to reach her goal before school begins here at the end of September.  

Her website, bookbagsforiraq.org, has receives many visitors and is starting to receive support from international charities.