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Operation Pencil Box - U.S. Army refurbishes schools

Friday, September 26, 2003

TIKRIT, Iraq -- Sitting inside a dusty office in a shrapnel-damaged building, Gerald Fox stares intently at his laptop, juggling the cost of electrical wiring, pipes, brick and mortar.

In recent weeks, the 34-year-old U.S. Army sergeant has been working on a proposal to have nine schools rebuilt in Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, at a cost of $243,300. He already has contracts for repairs to 14 other schools and has assessed 92 others.

His work is part of a project designed to repair some of the 2,000 schools in the three Iraqi provinces controlled by the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division. The aim is to have some schools ready by Oct. 1, when students go back to class.

"Operation Pencil Box" will also help provide many of the schools with pens, notebooks and other supplies gathered during a charity drive around Fort Hood, Texas, where the 4th ID is based.

"We had an adopt-a-school program in towns surrounding Fort Hood, where soldiers help out at schools. We thought, why don't we do this here?" Maj. Josslyn Aberle said.

The idea came from the division's commander, Maj. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, and was initially aimed at having units build a small number of model schools. It also sought to more closely involve soldiers with Iraqi society.

"It's engaging families at home and the soldiers here in something other than raids," said Maj. John Williamson, of Exeter, N.H., who is with the Army's 443rd Civil Affairs Battalion.

He said the troops were so enthusiastic about the project that it mushroomed and grew to 309 schools.

The repairs range from replacing windows to putting in electric cables, plumbing, painting walls and rebuilding damaged sections.

Money comes from Odierno's emergency relief project fund, which has been supporting reconstruction projects until the U.S.-controlled Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad can channel funds through a nascent Iraqi government early next year. Of $16.3 million allocated so far for infrastructure work, half has gone to education, Williamson said.

"People have to know what we are doing. We do so many projects each week," he said. "People only hear when we kill Iraqis, not when we help them."

Not everyone agrees, however, that such projects will restore the confidence of Iraqis in U.S. occupation forces.

For the community

"I am happy for what the coalition forces are doing for the community, especially the school renovation," said Abdullah Jasim Talib, a member of the Tikrit City Council. "But we do have problems here and there, the rude raids and breaking into people's houses and stealing money."

U.S. forces in Tikrit have been carrying out near daily raids against suspected Saddam loyalists or Iraqi resistance cells, often confiscating money. The raids have intensified after multiple attacks on U.S. forces, including an ambush near Tikrit on Sept. 17 that killed three soldiers.

Many of the 4th Infantry Division troops in Tikrit have found themselves in an odd situation -- they came to fight and are instead trying to restore order and repair public services.

Unable to invade Iraq from the north as planned because of Turkish objections, the 4th ID instead found itself trying to win hearts and minds while working to suppress an active Iraqi resistance in Tikrit and surrounding provinces.

Engineers maintained oil pipelines, water and electricity, signals officers took over telecommunications and doctors have been helping out with public health. They are trying to repair damage caused by neglect, 13 years of U.N. sanctions, America's war to oust Saddam and the looting that followed the U.S.-led invasion.

"I usually do mortars," said Fox, of Muskegon, Mich. "Everyone in here has a ministry and I was lucky enough to get schools. It's very rewarding. Children tend to be more appreciative than adults."

Fox's boss, Capt. Raymond Jones, the task force's fire control officer, helps run many projects from a liaison office in central Tikrit that has been attacked and damaged by rockets. His projects manager, Capt. Daryl Carter, a 36-year-old military man who has helped restore power and water, is an infantry officer.

"Maybe this is part of the infantry now. Helping people who didn't create this mess, deal with this mess," said Carter, of Jacksonville, Fla.

A case in point is Capt. Mark Bailey, commander of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 68th Armor Regiment, whose unit has been helping out in Hatimia, a village of 5,000 people 80 miles south of Tikrit.

Sitting with his men on worn couches and plastic chairs under the shade of eucalyptus trees in the dusty main square, Bailey recently talked about construction jobs with the village sheik and his council.

At a nearby school for nearly 600 boys and girls that his unit is helping fund, workers have put in electricity, are constructing a new wing and painting the other two buildings. They are also expecting school supplies to arrive this month.

"They have seen our combat capability, now they can see our real side," said Bailey, 31, of Columbus, Ohio.


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