BALAD, Iraq — The helicopter’s blades cut the afternoon sky as the Blackhawk flew fast and low to the ground, passing over villages and farmlands, skimming over tops of palm trees, and following the occasional road.
It might have been another routine flight for pilots of Task Force 185th, but it also was an important mission: transporting humanitarian goods to needy Iraqi school children
The 185th Aviation Brigade, based out of Balad Air Base in Central Iraq, is made up of mostly National Guard units from 32 states and they fly to all points across Iraq.
In addition to their regular work, thanks to two groups — The Family Readiness Group and Operation Iraqi Children — the Task Force 185th has also been engaged in humanitarian work by delivering school supplies across the country.
The Family Readiness Group, which is made up of friends and family of deployed soldiers, started accepting donations last summer to provide non-perishable items for the Task Force to give to their adopted town of Yatrib.
Once the group had collected 800 backpacks and 350 boxes of school supplies, the “Back to School Program” was ready to go.
But, the shipping costs to transport the $650,000 worth of school supplies from the United States to Iraq, proved prohibitively expensive. That’s where the Operation Iraqi Children (OIC) organization stepped in to help alleviate costs.
Through the efforts of actor Gary Sinise, author Laura Hellenbrand and others, Operation Iraqi Children enables Americans to send school supply kits to Iraqi children.
Federal Express donated the use of cargo space to the organization to help get school kits into the region, but the supplies had begun stockpiling in a base in Kuwait.
Col. Bradly MacNealy, the Task Force 185th commanding officer, realized that his pilots could help by providing unused space on their aircraft to transport the school supplies from Kuwait to Balad, Iraq.
Since the missions from Balad cover the four corners of Iraq, Col. MacNealy and his brigade took on the backlog of the Operation Iraqi Children supplies.
They made sure any flight leaving the airbase with an inch of empty space was loaded with the humanitarian cargo. Thus the Balad airbase became the central distribution point for Operation Iraqi Children in Iraq.
Key involvement of soldiers
“The effect on the children will be long term but the effect on the parents will be immediate,” boasted Col. MacNealy.
“At the same time our families and friends can feel that this is their contribution towards our effort to establish peace and security for Iraqis and for their loved ones,” MacNealy added.
All the work performed by the soldiers is purely voluntary, done on their own time.
Capt. Stacy Cetin, an aide to MacNealy, is among the many who have donated their time to make the project a success. Since October she has coordinated the logistics of shipping over 100 pallets of supplies.
“I have over 20 base camps with an average community size of 400 children to 500,000,” she said, “ I get new names on a daily basis.”
MacNealy said soldiers from forward bases are always requesting more supplies. “Every time a soldier goes out and gives something out, it will make their lives easier,” he exclaimed.
Delivery of goods
Two Blackhawk helicopters crossed the muddy fields outside a forward base in central Iraq. They landed softly on the tarmac. A front loader drove up and unloaded the pallets.
Soldiers transferred the boxes on to a five-ton truck. Maj. Michael Guiles of the 403rd Civilian Affairs Battalion gathered the members of his convoy together for a briefing.
“Today, although we are going to an area where we are welcomed, we need to talk about security. Security is our number one concern. We need to fully be aware,” said Maj. Guiles.
The security members of the convoy got into their gun turret armored Humvees. With two in the front and two in the back the convoy left the base.
Driving down a muddy road, with cars veering out into its path, the convoy came to a rest outside a primary school in a central Iraqi village.
The security Humvees took up defensive positions around the school. Guiles got out of his vehicle and was immediately mobbed by the village kids.
Shoeless children put their hands out, screaming at the top of their lungs, as the Major tried to hand out gloves.
Kids happy to get supplies, but teachers weary
Meanwhile, at the entrance of the school, one of the major’s troops was apologizing to the headmaster of the school for the interruption. The headmaster grabbed the military translator and asked the soldier when the electricity would be fixed.
“It is hard to teach children in the dark,” said the headmaster. “I understand,” replied the soldier. “Today we are here to hand out school supplies to your students. I will look into the electricity problem later.”
The other teachers peered out of their classrooms, saw the soldiers and foreigners, and quickly went back inside. The translator said the teachers did not want to be interviewed.
During the visit, only one teacher spoke to journalists. The others shied away, afraid of becoming targets of the insurgency that labels anyone who works in any government capacity as a “legitimate” target in their attempt to intimidate and terrorize the Iraqi people.
The students were very quiet at first. They silently lined up and walked to the courtyard where one of Guiles’ soldiers handed out the school supply kits.
They grabbed their gifts and just as silently filed back into their classroom. When the journalists entered the room the young teacher left immediately. The students fidgeted nervously at first, But they quickly became children again, shouting, screaming, and even playing for the camera.
The girls in the back opened up their kits with curiosity. Some realized the value of the kits were and immediately put them in their backpacks. Others quickly unwrapped every item in the packet.
One child’s eyes were transfixed on a piece of paper in the kit with English writing and the U.S. flag.
Shortly after the children began playing, Guiles announced that the allotted time on the ground had expired. It was time to return to the base.
The major explained that he would have loved to spend more time with the children, but in today’s Iraq not only would that put the troops at risk but just as importantly the children.
The children, oblivious to all these security precautions, chased Guiles into his Humvee yelling for soccer balls.
Babak Behnam is an NBC News producer on assignment in Iraq. NBC cameraman Kevin Burke and NBC soundman Martin Francis contributed to this article. Some names, including that of the school, were withheld for security reasons. For more information about Operation Iraqi Children please visit www.operationiraqichildren.org