By Edward Lee Pitts, Military Affairs
CAMP CALDWELL, Iraq -- Blowing up hidden weapons in the morning and providing security at the opening of a new U.S.-funded school in the afternoon are all in a day's work for the 278th Regimental Combat Team's Deacon Company.
"An hour ago I had dirt thrown on me from a bunch of mortar shells blowing up, and now I am at a ribbon-cutting at a school," Lt. Joseph Minarick, 29, of Oak Ridge, Tenn., said Thursday, soon after shaking hands with a long line of dignitaries at the opening of the primary school in the town of Hamilathania.
Earlier in the day, in the nearby town of Mandaly, his platoon, conducting foot patrols, discovered a cache of buried mortar shells, which guardsmen destroyed using a hand grenade.
The day ended with a tour of the sparse new nine-room school where U.S. forces and Iraqi adults and children mingled with ease.
"If you have to be in Iraq right now as an American, then this is the place to be," said Lt. Minarick, who already has conducted three foot patrols in one week in the area soon to be under the 278th's control. "I'm not relaxed, but I am not uncomfortable, either. The people just want to live their lives."
The 278th soldiers are being told this week by their predecessors here, the 30th Brigade Combat Team, that for every homemade bomb blast and hidden weapons cache there is a school opening, a road expansion, or other civil improvement in this impoverished land near the Iranian border.
Lt. Col. Mark W. Hart, the commander of 278th's first squadron, used Thursday's grand opening as a chance to meet the leaders he will be dealing with for the next year. As he shook their hands and listened to their concerns, he toured the school rooms with wooden desks and one blackboard. Children played in the school's large courtyard.
"For Iraq's long-term prosperity, their greatest asset is their children," Col. Hart said.
Two children proudly held up a red ribbon across the blue double doorway to the one-story white school building.
The rest of the village's children, many barefoot, eagerly lined up to receive school supplies brought by U.S. troops. Most children say "thank you" in English. And they point to their chests and say "My name is..." repeatedly to any one in uniform.
One child called himself a "pupil" and demonstrated what he already has learned by repeating the English alphabet with only a few misplaced letters.
"This is the key to us winning here," said Maj. Tim Cleveland as he watched Col. Hart begin relationships with the tribal leaders while troops posed for pictures with the throngs of children. "Superior firepower will not win this."
The winning of hearts and minds falls to units such as Capt. Chris Chang's 426 Civil Affairs battalion based out of California. Capt. Chang said most area improvement projects average about $50,000 with a cap of $250,000. Local contractors are hired to help pump up the local economy, according to Capt. Chang.
But this sometimes leads to unreliable results.
On the way to the school opening, Capt. Chang's convoy stopped at a $175,000 water pumping station construction project that had stalled. He discussed withholding payment until the contractor finishes the job. When the station opens, four instead of one village will get water from the muddy canal nearby.
"We are the first people in hundreds of years to work to improve the economy here," Capt. Chang said. "But if OSHA came here, they would have a heart attack. Engineers here are not what we think of as engineers back home."
On the way to the school opening, the convoy passed through a nearby town with an Iraqi-built school that was little more than a mud and straw hut. The convoy's travel continued on a gravel road for which the United States paid $50,000.
Capt. Chang said the U.S. Army gave area officials just 48 hours notice about the school ceremony to reduce the chance of the festivities being disrupted by insurgents.
With two colonels attending, U.S. forces overran the small town with tight security led by about 12 military vehicles.
Area mayors, City Council members and Iraqi national guard officers attended the event, but Capt. Chang said he was most pleased that the local tribal religious elders also came to shake the hands of the new officers in town with the 278th.
"If you have support of the sheik, you have support of the town," Capt. Chang said. "I am happy because we got the key people we needed."
The local sheik, through an interpreter, said the American coalition forces are like a "bridge" between an old, impoverished Iraq and a new beginning.
"We don't want to waste our people away," the sheik said. "We will continue to build this country and this society just like this school."
The Arabic sign at the front door announces that the primary school is for both males and females, although no women were present at the ceremony. Several young girls watched the activities from behind a mud and brick home about 100 yards away.
"We are out here with coats and gloves on, and they are out here barefooted," said the 278th's Maj. Eddie Robbins, of Memphis, who is part of the regiment's civil affairs unit. "So I am going to have to respond with e-mails home asking to send children's shoes."
Maj. Robbins shook his head as he looked around at the modest buildings and the mud shack outhouse next to a creek running with sewage.
"These are wide-open, desolate living conditions," he said. "You can't imagine it until you see it firsthand."
E-mail Lee Pitts at firstname.lastname@example.org