Seabees rebuild Iraqi school

20 Jun 2003 | Amry Spc. Melissa Walther

Rebuilding over 18 schools and municipal buildings in Ad Diwaniyah, the Seabees of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 4 are truly living up to their motto of  "With compassion for others, we build, we fight, for peace and freedom."

"I'm very happy to do something like this," said Petty Officer 1st Class Hector Calderon, a builder with NMCB-4 and project head on Schoolhouse Number 7.  "The people's gratitude is amazing."

"I see what he (Calderon) has done to help me," said Husain Shakir, headmaster of the school.  My Iraqi friends don't help me because I have no home. It's my American friends who have done it all."

Seeing his school looted by neighborhood kids, Shakir left his home and moved his family into the school to try to protect it.  The Seabees have built protective walls around the school and improved the living quarters, making cabinets and tile counters for the kitchen.

"We didn't have to do any of this," said Calderon.  "But, he didn't have to move in here and try to protect it, either.  We wanted to do it."

Originally set up to support the Marines on their push to Baghdad and provide expertise on bridges, the battalion's mission has now changed from providing combat support to helping rebuild the country, according to Lt. Brandon Harding with NMCB-4 based in Port Hueneme, Calif.  However, this transition has presented unique challenges, said Harding.

"We just don't have all the tools we need to do things like building brick walls," Harding said.  "We weren't set up to do this, so we have to adapt."

Their solution to this problem was to hire civilian contractors and have them do most of the work while Navy engineers supervised and provided security.

"Instead of using 30 or 40 of my people on a project we can use five or ten and do twice as many projects this way," said Cmdr. James Worcester of NMCB-4.

Their projects have included assessing about 40 schools, rebuilding 18, restoring the police station and motor pool, the courthouse and local jail, all in a six-week period.

Not all of their work is to repair buildings damaged during the war.

"Most of these schools haven't seen an improvement since they were built," Worcester said.  "The governor said that if the schools wanted to get repairs, they should collect the money from their students and neighbors.  These people don't have enough money for themselves, how were they supposed to help out their schools?"

Money is also a problem for the Seabees.  Using seized Iraqi funds to pay for the contractors, Worcester still feels that more money could make a huge difference.

"Money here goes ten times farther than in the U. S.," Worcester said.  "If we had more money we could blow this place wide open.  I've been wanting to fix their recreation center and make improvements to things like storm drains, but we just don't have the money."

"I spoke to one of the Iraqi's at a school project and he said 'Saddam (Hussein) is alive and I'm glad; he must hate it to see what good has come to his country,'" Worcester said.  "I'm glad to be a part of that."