AL HILLAH, Iraq -- Appearing as camouflaged Santas arriving in Humvees, members of an Army civil affairs group June 12 gave out bundles of donated toys to Iraqi children and their mothers at a hospital in Al Hillah.
Members of the Norristown, Pa.-based 358th Civil Affairs Brigade, an Army Reserve unit working with the First Marine Expeditionary Force, had been carrying toys with them since the unit deployed in March.
The soldiers carried the toys inside duffel bags and rucksacks on the airplane coming overseas. From there the toys, which were collected by a church in Pennsylvania, traveled to Kuwait, then through the desert of Iraq, and finally to the waiting arms of smiling children.
The soldiers arrived at the Babylon Hospital for Children and Gynecology in Al Hillah with boxes filled with stuffed animals, miniature cars and other playthings as patients looked on in surprise.
Lt. Col. Michael Keller, chief of the unit's public health team, oversaw the mission of mercy to the hospital. Keller is part of 413th Civil Affairs Battalion in Lubbock, Texas, but is assigned to the 358th during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"Many times children get scared of the all the people in white coats and men in uniform, and hopefully these toys will calm their fears," Keller said.
The mothers watched on with gratitude on their faces as their children received their gift. The concern on the children's faces melted into smiles as the goodies were distributed.
Keller said the toys were a message from "our children to theirs, saying: 'we hope you are happy and playing and enjoying your childhood.'"
Speaking through an interpreter, Dr. Asaad Fakry, a pediatrician at the hospital, said he hopes that the toys will be effective in comforting the children in their recovery.
Dr. Asaad Fakry is also head of resident doctors at the hospital.
According to Keller, many of the young children in the hospital suffer from malnutrition primarily. He explained that the size of the child's head was ordinary yet their bodies are frail and shrunken due to inadequate food.
Others were being treated for blood diseases and gastrointestinal problems.
Only a handful of the children at the hospital are older than five years.
The 358th has been working with the children's hospital staff for more than two months supporting their efforts with blood transfusions and administering tests for hepatitis and HIV.
They have also assessed the services of the general hospital in Al Hillah, a trauma ward for adults, and a hospital in Safwan.
Keller explained that the children's hospital has already undergone many infrastructure upgrades. The hospital has been transformed from an unsanitary facility, which was lacking crucial services such as electricity and water, to a clean, air-conditioned building with functioning phone lines, he said.
Reparations from coalition forces will ensure that hospitals in cities such as Al Hillah continue to gain forward momentum as the reconstruction of Iraq continues.
Several levels of support are needed to complete Iraq's recovery, but with small acts of compassion such as the 358th's gift, Iraq's future doesn't seem as bleak.