1st Marine Division opens ninth school in An Najaf

21 Jul 2003 | Sgt. Michael Sweet

The First Marine Division rehabilitated two more schools in An Najaf, Iraq July 21, making a total of nine schools that have been sponsored by the Marines in the province since the end of major combat operations in May.

Lieutenant Col. Christopher Conlin, 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment commanding officer, helped cut the ribbons today at the Al Fika and Al Wahda primary schools, which marked the beginning of a legacy that the Marines hope to leave here when they leave Iraq.

"This is what it is all about, the youth of Iraq," said Sgt. Maj. Henry E. Bergeron, battalion sergeant major.

Aside from investing about $6,000 for the project, the Marines also donated a new school bell that is inscribed with the words, "A gift to the children of Iraq from the 1st Marine Division."  Naval construction engineers, who helped rehabilitate the two schools, hung the bell before the ceremony.

"I am excited that my school looks so nice," said Heibatt Kaddam, headmistress of the all-girl Al Fika primary school.  "This will help us continue to teach our girls with high standards."

The Seabees from the Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 4 (Air Detachment), based out of Port Hueneme, Calif., worked with local contractors to get the school up and running, said Petty Officer 1st Class Pasquale N. Dudas, construction supervisor at the Al Fika Primary School.

"The contractors have been working here for about three weeks," said Dudas, a resident of Geneva, Ohio. "We put in about 56 man-days to complete the mission."

The Seabees contracted out with local workers to clean up and paint the school and the Seabees rewired the school and installed new lighting and ceiling fans.

"Of course this is wonderful," Suaad Munaar, a math and Arabic teacher, said through an interpreter.  "How can the students learn in such hot weather without these nice fans?"

Though it is summer vacation, dozens of students came to the ribbon cutting ceremonies to get a sneak peak at the renovated schools.

"It is nice," said Hannaam Haddi, who will be starting sixth grade in the fall.  "I like the new lights and the fans.  Everything looks so new now."

Although the Marines will be handing over the mission of keeping Najaf safe and stable to new international forces in the near future, school rehabilitation will still be an important legacy, according to Army Sgt. Katharine N. Utecht, an educational coordinator with the 432nd Civil Affairs Battalion.

The Army Reserve unit based out of Green Bay, Wis. is assigned to the 1st Marine Division to coordinate humanitarian aid projects. 

Division Marines have finalized a plan in which local contractors will begin rehabilitating 40 schools beginning in the next few weeks, according to Utecht, a resident of Kiel, Wis. The soldiers who work as the government support team for the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines have also donated $500 to another 38 schools in which the staff and faculty decide what immediate projects they chose to start.

"The teachers are doing a great job," Utecht said.  "They are using the money not only for cosmetic repairs but they have been purchasing new windows, water tanks, and fans.  They are really making the most of $500."

Recently the Governate Support Team coordinated a contract in which every school in the province of Najaf will be surveyed to determine what repairs will be needed to bring all the schools up to acceptable standards for the children.

"I am going to like going to school," Haddi said.  "I like to learn, maybe I will be in charge of this school someday."