School frenzy in Iraq

27 May 2003 | Army Sgt. Mike Sweet

The legacy that some Marines hope to leave the Iraq people is not tales of heroism, but one of education, as they team with Navy builders to rehabilitate a primary school that suffered from years of neglect under Saddam Hussein's regime.

Working hand in hand with the Seabees of the Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 15, Air Detachment, a Reserve unit based in Kansas City, Mo., the 1st Battalion 4th Marines picked this school to receive extra attention.

"This is our legacy school," said Lt. Col. John L. Mayer, the commander of the 1st Bn., 4th Mar.  "This school is special because when we came here to assess the building, we were impressed by the dedication of its faculty."

So far the Seabees, working with the First Marine Expeditionary Force, have reopened five schools in Al Hillah.  With limited resources and time, the Seabees have been spending about one week per school in order to get as many kids back in class as they can.

At the aging primary school was built in 1921.   Petty Officer 1st Class Scott L. Cox, construction site supervisor with the Seabees for this project, said the 1st Battalion., 4th Marines poured into the project about 15 thousand dollars, and extra manpower, to show the citizens of Al Hillah what could be done for the schools if everyone pulled together and shared resources.

"They supply the funding and we take care of the work," Cox said

For three weeks, the Seabees have been working long hours rewiring new lights into the classrooms, adding ceiling fans and even rebuilding desks for the students according to Cox, whose wife teaches 2nd grade in Wichita, Ks

"We also hired local contractors to clean up the building and to do much of the painting," said Cox.  "This way we were able to put money back into the economy right away."

The Seabees may have been the muscle behind the rehabilitation but the faculty and staff of the school made many of the decisions on how the school would look.

"I wanted to see more brighter colors," said Mayer.  "But they chose these colors so it will not show much dirt."

The freshly-painted schoolhouse, with brown and cream-colored walls, almost glistens in the early-morning light.  As teams of Seabees arrive around 6:30 a.m. to take care of some last minute details, they find that many students are already waiting in the school courtyard for school to begin.

"What did you do to the school?" asked wide-eyed fourth grader Ali through a translator.  The youth walked around in circles carrying his Pokemon backpack over his shoulder.  "It's so clean."

The courtyard, which only a few weeks ago was filled with dilapidated desks, was now full of boys and girls and some new basketball hoops.

"I noticed that you put the Seabee logo on the backboards," Mayer said to Cox.  He asked why the 1st Bn. 4th Mar.'s traditional symbol, a Chinese dragon, wasn't added. The unit began using the dragon as their symbol when it was stationed in China from 1927 to the beginning of World War II. 

"We did not want to scare the children," Cox said.  Although good natured ribbing is all part of the Navy-Marine partnership, both men credited each other's unit for the project's success.

"These guys did all the work," said Mayer.  "You would not believe how resourceful and hardworking these Seabees are."

The construction site supervisor would have none of that. He felt that working in an area that was just liberated might have been a little too distracting for his Seabees.

"They were here every day to provide our security," said Cox.  "We would not have been able to get this job done if we had to worry about that all the time."

Aside from dealing with the challenges of any construction project, the Seabees also ran into a few obstacles that they normally do not see in Kansas City, Mo.     

"Before we could get to work we had to clear out ammunition that was stored here," said Chief Petty Officer Martin H. Manhart, a platoon chief with the Seabees.  "(The Baath party) used schools, hospitals and mosques to store ammunition in order to try and keep us from destroying it.

As it became time for the school day to begin, the boys and girls are likely  together in the courtyard for the first time. Abib Ali Kadhem, the headmaster for the boy's school called Al Hillah West primary School said local customs do not allow boys and girls to go to school together until they go to college.  Al Hillah West primary School shares the same building with a separate girls school. 

"The boys go to school in the morning here," said Kadhem.  "In the afternoon, the school becomes Khawlablvt Al-Azwar Primary School for girls and is under the direction of head Mistress Ritba Abd Al-Ekhaw."

Surveying his new schoolhouse, Kadhem is as excited as his students.  Talking with Mayer, he thanks the Marines for all of their support.

"This is a gift of the American people," said Mayer.  He adds with a little smile, "and maybe with a little of Saddam's money too. They both laugh, knowing that some of the liberated resources that went to rebuild the school came from the same people who let the school fall apart. 

With that, the headmaster blew his whistle and all the children gathered together, boys and the girls, for an assembly to open the school. This day was different, because for the first time since the war began, school was going to reopen and the Seabees had a special treat for the staff and students.

Commodore Albert Garcia, commander of Task Force Charlie, one of the Navy engineering groups working to rebuild Iraq, wielded the sledgehammer that punched the first hole into the eight-foot-high stone wall surrounding the primary school.

Once the first holes in the wall appeared, the students who were gathered in the courtyard began to cheer with delight as they caught the first glimpses of a brand new playground that the Seabees built for them.

With shouts of joy, the children encouraged the Seabees to make the hole bigger by chanting in English, "Long live freedom, long live freedom."

Two more Seabees grabbed sledgehammers to help the Commodore finish the job.  As each level of the wall crashed, the children got a bigger glimpse of wooden towers, a swing set and teeter-totters. 

Surrounding this new child paradise was a wrought-iron fence that was liberated from an Iraqi Army base in town.     

Holding back the tide of children would take more than the battle-tested Marines. Once the hole was big enough, cheering boys and girls poured through the opening like water through a broken dam.  The school children needed no training to know how to climb up on towers or how to test the velocity of the swings.

For the past several weeks, the Seabees have been building toilet facilities, weapons racks, and shaving tables for the Marines at Camp Babylon, but coming up with a playground design took a little more work than going to the Seabee blueprints.

"I had an idea of what I wanted," said Petty Officer 2nd Class Joe S. Rockhold, from Kansas City, Mo.  "I had just built one like this for my own kids right before I came here."

Getting together with some of the other builders in the team, they brainstormed and came up with different ideas on how to make the playground work.  Working without plans, they scrounged materials in order to make it all come together.

"The hardest part for me was finding a rope bridge to hang between the towers," said Rockhold.  After searching for days around his base, he was able to get cargo netting for the job.

"As you can see, it works just great," said Rockhold as dozens of boys scampered across the bridge.

Another masterpiece the Seabees designed was the teeter-totter. 

"I tried to do it with wood," said Petty Officer 1st Class Frank J. Hoffman, a steel worker with the Seabees.  "But none of the wood was straight enough."

To overcome that problem, Hoffman, whose civilian job is that of an independent truck driver from Watertown, S.D., used metal he scraped together from Saddam's Babylon palace's now-defunct water system. 

The teachers tried, in vain, to corral their pupils back into the school but the kids would have nothing to do with that.  Smiling, they ran around like all excited children do, at least for a few more minutes. 

"This is what it is all about," said Navy Lt. Jeff G. Gerken, the officer in charge of NMCB 15.  "You do not need a translator to know how these kids feel."