BORDER FORT NINE, Iraq --
Their mission is to train, mentor and advise Iraqi Security Forces on Anbar’s border, but the Marines of Border Transition Team 4222 don’t forget to provide help to western Anbar’s civilian population.
“Helping them out helps the mission out greatly, as far as winning them over,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class John H. Holscher, corpsman, BTT 4222. “Turning them from the impression that the military is bad, that all we do is kick in doors and cause hell, it’s not like that at all. We’re trying to help them.”
The transition team headed up a small civil affairs engagement here Oct. 24 to provide local Iraqis with medical, dental and logistical aid. Though it’s not part of their primary mission, team members here have learned that reaching out to the Iraqi people will make them more likely to reach out to Marines.
“It’s important we gain their trust, if we have their trust they’ll talk to us and tell us where (foreign fighters) are, and we’re able to eradicate any insurgent presence,” said Gunnery Sgt. Rob T. Mantilla, operations chief. “It provides safety for us to maintain contact with these people; we keep them safe and they keep us safe.”
Intelligence gathering and improved security is just a byproduct of good relations. The real purpose here was to see some smiles.
“It’s good to put a smile on a kid’s face, I love that,” said Holscher, 28, New London, N.C. “At first they were scared, now they smile and stuff.”
A smile’s no good without pearly whites, so one of the priorities was good medical and dental hygiene. Holscher set up shop and saw to each civilian, checking vital signs and teeth.
“Dental out here is huge, there’s a large lack of dental hygiene, from education, I’ve no doubt they would do it if they knew how,” Holscher said.
Marines handed out toothbrushes, toothpaste and teddy bears after each patient finished with the check up. The corpsman spoke to parents about how to treat themselves and their children with the medicine Marines supplied to them. Kids also received a class on proper tooth brushing techniques.
They seemed more excited for the clothes and toys than for the doctor and the drugs.
“This is the face of Iraq right here, you could see it in their faces that we make a difference to them, one at a time. And if that’s what it takes, then that’s what we have to do,” said Mantilla, 36, Jersey City, N.J.
The project kick-started when Mantilla talked to his girlfriend about the dismal living conditions of a few of the more isolated Iraqi families. She took it on herself to contact different stateside associations, looking for donations of clothes and food.
“(Mantilla) just told me about how the kids had barely anything, so I decided to go on (the internet) and post an ad for all unwanted stuffed animals and toys,” said Erika C. Duke, 25, Escondido, Calif. “Everyone responded, (and) wanted to give me shoes, clothes and toys.”
Mantilla told other team members about Duke’s success, and the idea snowballed from there. Soon the team’s loved ones combined their efforts.
“People started writing home and things just started flowing in from back home, with lots of support from friends and family, and the whole inspiration was to help the locals out,” said Capt. Will D. Whaley, operations officer.
An outpouring of aid filled one of the Marines’ huts. Brown boxes filled to the breaking point with aid. Some bundles of clothes were separated by size and tied off with inspirational messages written in Arabic.
“It just to teach them that, although we have cultural differences, and maybe have a different belief system, we’re still goodhearted people that care for other people,” said Whaley, 32, Phoenix.
The locals thanked their visitors with chai tea and hummus bread. Kids ran around the Marines, laughing, playing with their new toys and trying on new clothes.
Some Marines couldn’t help but play themselves.
“They’re the future of this country, these kids,” Mantilla said. “If they’re willing to put their hand out, we’re willing to try to pull them up and assist in any way we can.”
Mantilla said building a relationship is a good investment, and that it may bear fruit in the years to come.
“These kids are going to grow up. One day, they may be persuaded to put a rifle in their hands and fight us, but if they remember us, it’s kind of hard to do something like that,” he said.
The engagement went well, said Marines here, but the team isn’t done yet. As long as support keeps flowing from the states, the civil affairs missions will continue.