Gulfport — Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.
That old Chinese proverb can be likened to the experience of the Navy Seabees in Iraq. The Seabees have conducted a number of projects in Iraq: building bridges, roads, schools and water systems. But by working along with the Iraqis, the Seabees have also been on a mission to teach them the skills they need to be self sustaining.
“There are not a lot of trained engineers in rural areas of Iraq,” said senior chief Troy Kellerman, Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 133, which is headquartered in Gulfport. “Some places are so remote, and the people didn’t have the knowledge or skills to rebuild. Not only did we get to work with the local Iraqis, but we got to teach them.
“It is important to long-term sustainability for them to be able to do things themselves. We were not just there to help rebuild Iraq, but to look at the long term to help them gain skills so they can do things for themselves and be independent. Overall, the most important thing we can do is teach them. They realize that, too, and that is why they are very hungry for knowledge.”
An incomplete picture
Kellerman said most of the media reports in the U.S. about Iraq focus on the negatives. A lot of the good stories about what Americans are doing to rebuild the country are being overlooked.
“It is true there are a lot of bad things going on over there,” said Kellerman. “But I don’t feel that a true picture is being presented. Every now and then there is a comment about some Iraqis being happy the Americans are there, but you don’t have a true picture of how good it is for us being there helping them rebuild — going in and fixing schools, building furniture for the schools, providing them drinking water, paving roads and building bridges. Improving the conditions of roads over there is a big thing.
“When I was there and we were doing some things at a couple of schools, absolutely we felt completely welcomed by the local Iraqis we were working not just for, but with. It was just a great feeling to be there, knowing we were helping and the fact that they appreciated we were there helping improve their quality of life.”
While women in supervisory positions are rare in Iraq, Kellerman didn’t get the sense that the Iraqis had any problem with her role there. She recalls at one point going out to visit a water pumping station that was broken down. Three young Iraqis males were amazed that a female was working in the military, and especially that she was supervising how to repair the water pumping station.
“They were very interested and asked a lot of questions about my home life,” Kellerman said. “‘What is it like? Was I married? What state was I from?’ It amazed me they know a lot about the States. They were very curious about life in the U.S. A lot of Iraqis do speak English. I was surprised.”
Her experience was that most Iraqis she met were glad that the U.S. is there, and were grateful for the support.
“My unit crossed the border into Iraq the third day after the war started,” Kellerman said. “Most of the people we ran into were cheering, putting up two fingers for the peace sign. The ones we actually talked to did impart they were glad Saddam Hussein was on his way out. Most of them were chanting George Bush’s name. They said, ‘We’re glad you are here.’ That really surprised me a lot because we didn’t know what to expect.”
Her best memory of her tour was working to repair an old British cemetery in Al Kut. In World War I, a lot of British soldiers died there and local Iraqis built a cemetery for them. Over the years, the cemetery had become overgrown and was vandalized.
“We worked side-by-side with the local Iraqis to clean up the cemetery, and install gravestones and a concrete cross,” she said. “Then we had a dedication ceremony.”
Some of the most important missions involved repairing or building new bridges that were either damaged by the war or simply in too poor a condition to be used.
When the only bridge to a rural area is out, the people who live there can’t get goods to and from market, and aren’t able to travel to get health care.
“The bridging mission was very, very important,” Kellerman said. “For local Iraqis, if the bridge was out, they were stuck. Bridge repair helped to keep the roads open not just for military purposes of convoys, but also for the local Iraqis to be able to travel.”
Utilityman first class John Cunningham, NMCB 133, who recently returned from a second tour of duty in Iraq, said the overall consensus from the Iraqis he met was that there were definite benefits from the U.S. helping them rebuild.
During his first tour, he said the Iraqis were a bit hesitant about accepting the American soldiers. But once the Seabees starting fixing up schools, the locals were grateful.
He returned from his second tour this past December. During that tour, the Seabees were initially working in an area that had a number of insurgents. Once the insurgents were cleaned out and locals were able to return to their homes, the Iraqis were more receptive towards the help being provided by the Seabees.
“A few here and there are hesitant and weary of us being there,” Cunningham said. “They are pretty eager to take over and start rebuilding their country themselves, also.”
Cunningham agrees about the importance of their teaching missions.
“Working alongside them teaching them Seabee skills so they can improve their own working environments and homes is probably the best benefit of us being over there,” he said.
“The Iraqis loved us, most of them,” said Lt. Gary Huling, NMCB 133. “The little children were fabulous. I interacted and talked with a lot of local Iraqis all over the country. Most I interacted with really appreciated what we were doing, and were looking forward to having some freedom.”
Huling recalls providing security for an engineer who was restructuring electrical distribution for the City of Najaf. One day children came from everywhere until the soldiers were surrounded by hundreds of kids.
“They loved us,” Huling said. “They were very friendly. In the fringes you could see their parents watching them. It is very apparent Iraqis parents love their children just like we love our children in America. And we wouldn’t let our children hang out with people we wouldn’t trust. No matter where we drove through the country, the roadside people would wave at us. You could tell they genuinely liked us.”
The Seabees showed respect by honoring local traditions by, for example, providing food to a village of Bedouins during Ramadan, the most holy of Muslim holidays.
“They don’t eat in the day during Ramadan, but come sunset they break food and do it communally as a town or group,” Huling said. “To show respect for their culture, we went down and shared food with them. It was nice the way they did it. We presented the food to the elder of the tribe, who gave it to the children, who took the food off to their parents.”
While Bedouins are normally nomadic, at the start of the war this tribe decided to stay in one place. When the Seabees arrived, they were making their own bricks to build houses.
“When they found out we were going to build a school for them, they were extremely excited,” he said.
Huling said the U.S. is making a huge impact in a country that was ravaged even before the war. Much of the repairs are for work that had been neglected for at least a decade.
“We’re doing a lot, but there is still a lot to do,” Huling said. “And the reception by the Iraqi people is more positive than most people in the U.S. realize. You would be hard pressed to find a soldier over there that doesn’t feel the same way. The Iraqis will hug you. I’ve got a lot of pictures of smiling, happy Iraqis who genuinely appreciate what we are doing. And a lot of pictures of smiling soldiers, too. One of the things my guys did in Baghdad was handed out shoes that had been donated for children. We have pictures of these children smiling from ear to ear. It would be nice to see some of that on the news every now and again.”
Huling said while it is a shame that the media doesn’t focus more on the positive aspects of the U.S. presence in Iraq, it may be that the media is respecting operational security. He is able to talk about his experiences because his tour of duty is over. But if the media started covering reconstruction efforts while they were going on, it might cause security problems.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at email@example.com.