Airmen, volunteers foster community relations in Iraq international zone

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Craig Lifton
  • 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
Large walls encircle blocks of buildings and barriers control the flow of traffic. Armored military vehicles roll along the sides of cars and trucks as they move through the ancient city. Colorful signs and green trees brighten the bleak apartment complex. A small store selling fresh fruits and vegetables is the only sign of life with only a few customers shopping. Everyone stops in their tracks to focus on the Americans. Soon local children will be overjoyed.

Baghdad, the largest city in Iraq and the third largest in the Middle East, is considered to be one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Set inside the city along the Tigris River is an area known as the International Zone. The IZ is occupied by U.S. and international military, foreign diplomats, Iraqi government officials and more than 5,000 Iraqi residents.

With the help of a group of military volunteers, Joint Expeditionary Tasking Airmen with the 732nd Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron Detachment 4, and the 732nd Expeditionary Air Group Religious Support Team, foster community interaction to help the new Iraqi Police win the trust of the people within the IZ.

Until the beginning of this month, the IZ was patrolled by 732nd ESFS Det. 4 Airmen. Now, they mentor and assist the IP to police their own.

Following the concept of community policing, which is a strategy used by many police departments in the United States to help build trust with the citizens they protect, the Airmen and Iraqis interact with residents of the IZ. The goal is to help fight crime with the help of the community by indentifying crimes and criminals.

"It's good stuff anytime we get a chance to make this kind of contact with the Iraqis," said Capt. Ben Washburn, 732nd ESFS Det. 4 operations officer, currently deployed from Vogelweh, Germany. "When we show up, no one comes out at first, but then the word spreads fast and they start to come out and greet us."

Recently, the 732nd ESFS Det. 4, RST, and a volunteer group of servicemembers called
"Kids of Iraq" went on foot-patrol into an apartment complex inside the IZ. The Kids of Iraq receives donations from toys and clothes, to school supplies sent from people throughout the United States.

Led by Washburn, a native of Colorado Springs, Colo., the group exited their armored vehicles and approached an area of apartments. Small children began to watch as they approached with large boxes and toys. An interpreter talked to them to let them know it's safe.

As the children approach with caution, parents and other adults observe the activity from windows and doorways.

"The best part of this deployment is the interaction with the Iraqis," said Senior Airman Jesse Armstrong, a security forces journeyman deployed from Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., and native of Battle Creek, Iowa. "I like to watch how even the littlest things make the children's faces light up."

Toys and school supplies were passed out to a growing number of children who seemed to appear from nowhere. They smiled and laughed and, just like that, bonds were formed.

"To give to the children who have seen the war was a wonderful thing," said Ali, a member of the IP stationed in the IZ. "Most of these children today have lost at least one parent."

Chaplain (Capt.) Kelvin Francis, 732nd AEG RST, currently deployed from Shaw AFB, S.C., entertained some of the children by juggling balls. They ran to watch as he threw the balls into the air with his contagious smile and laugh.

"We are happy to help the 732nd ESFS Det. 4 police in their mission to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqis," said Francis, a native of Jacksonville, Fla.

Even as the toys ran out, more of the neighborhood came over to the U.S. servicemembers; all had happy faces and many of the adults wanted to shake their hands.

"We want to say thank you for your efforts for the children," said Mohamed Mahder of the Baghdad neighborhood. "I have noticed a lot of change since the United States came and brought democracy to the dark ages of Saddam."

"It's great to give toys and clothes to the Iraqi children," said Maj. John Northon, 732nd ESFS Det. 4 commander, a native of Plympton, Mass., currently deployed from Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England. "Our efforts are making a difference in the lives of these children."