Wednesday, March 25, 2009

VBC Service Members Invest Time, Effort to Bring Back Scout Program

By Sgt. 1st Class Ron Burke

CAMP VICTORY, Iraq - After Iraq embraced the scouting movement during the British occupation in 1921, its Boy Scout and Girl Guide program became a member of the World Organization Scouting Movement. Due to war and instability, it has been decertified twice by the World Organization Scouting Movement.

Improvements in security have led to a resurgence of scouting thanks a to group of dedicated service members. That group, called the Victory Base Council, is working to get the adults of Iraq to become more involved and, very soon, take over the program they’ve began to build toward recertification.

Since the Victory Base Council established a scout camp and community center here in April 2008, up to 150 service members have come together each Saturday to teach valuable scouting lessons and implement new sporting activities to the area’s youth. Today, the elementary-age children learned about heat injuries and worked with arts and crafts while older children played soccer, volleyball and learned how an airport fire truck puts out fires.

“Today we have a small group,” said Maj. John Crawson, who is the Victory Base Complex base defense operations center supply officer for Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 56th Infantry Brigade Combat Team. Last week the turn-out was large, with 80 children and over 40 adults playing baseball said Crawson.
In one tent, Maj. Ken Broussard, the environmental science officer from the division surgeon’s office of the 1st Cavalry Division, taught the younger children via an interpreter how to spot and prevent heat injuries. “The first thing you want to do is bring them into the shade,” said Broussard, who is from Pensacola, Fla. “You also need to make sure they drink plenty of water,” he continued and on cue, one of the little girls said she was thirsty and she and a few others ran out of the tent to grab water bottles.

When they returned, Broussard finished his lesson by answering the children’s questions and Zaina, 9, raised her hand and said, “You drink water so that it can cool your heart.” Amid the applause, Broussard nodded his approval saying that water helps cool your internal organs.

After the heat prevention lesson, the children moved over to the arts and crafts tent and began painting, coloring and putting together small, wooden model airplanes that were donated by schools in the United States.

“This gives me a sense of belonging and they [the children] accept me and have grown quite fond of the activities that we do,” said Staff Sgt. Kelly Greene, a reservist and supply noncommissioned officer with Alpha Company, 301st Military Intelligence Battalion, Multi-National Corps - Iraq, as she helped with the children’s artwork. “I’ve been doing this since September and it’s a good outlet for me,” said the 5th grade elementary school teacher from Enterprise, Ariz., who is also the Girl Guide program officer for the Victory Base Council.

One table over, Mariem, 5, concentrated on the wheels of her wooden model plane as Maj. Gary Farley, an Iraqi Ground Forces Command Military Transition Team advisor for Multi-National Corps - Iraq, prepared the glue.

“I love to be with the children, compared to 2003, where I just looked at people and they looked at me. Now, I get to interact with them and it’s a lot more fulfilling to see the little ones. They’re so open to new things,” he said as Mariem looked at him for assurance after assembling the wheels. Farley, who is from Gowanda, N.Y., continued, “Sometimes you may not know what you’re doing now, but later on after we leave here, your hope is that these little ones remember the good things that they did and good people helping.”

Amid the shouts from the kids playing volleyball and soccer with Air Force and Army personnel, a high-pitched alarm and the deep rumble of an airport fire engine signaled the next installment of instruction, courtesy of the firefighters from the 447th Civil Engineering Fire Department from Sather Air Base. A geyser of water spewed from the front of the truck and children ran over to get doused while others climbed into the cab of the truck to see what was making all the noise.

“I come because I like the fun and we get to play,” said Mohammed, a 13-year-old Scout, as children’s voices echoed over the fire truck’s public address loudspeaker. “I’ve learned about volleyball and baseball too!” he exclaimed.

Back at the main tent, joy was evident on the faces of the children running around as they tried to avoid the colorful water balloons zipping through the air.
Sgt. Kassidy Fitzwater, a multi-channel system operator with the 146th Expeditionary Signal Battalion, Multi-National Corps - Iraq, was lovingly bombarded with water balloons by the squealing children. After the raid, she walked toward the camp’s flagpoles to mark the day’s closing ceremony. Fitzwater, a resident of Pensacola, with the Florida National Guard, was today’s event coordinator.

“The water balloons were our back-up if the fire truck wasn’t able to show up,” she said as she smoothed her hair back. “I’ve been doing this since January and I’ve seen that we haven’t had to use our interpreters as much because the kids are learning some English,” she said. Fitzwater continued as the children lined up in front of the Iraqi, Iraqi Scout and U.S. flags, “All this makes an impact on the kids because they remember our names and our faces so I intend to keep volunteering until I leave.”

As the sun slowly descended past the tops of the palm trees, the youth of a new Iraq lined up shoulder to shoulder to say their scout motto while the service members who took a little time from their day gathered some distance behind them. Afterward, happy children and smiling service members streamed out of the camp, back home and back to work after taking another step toward helping to build a successful Iraqi scout program and a brighter future for Iraq.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

I Guess It Isn't Always Dust & Haze...

As I woke up this morning, I checked the clock. It read 0734 and I promptly rolled over for a few more moments of sleep. Once in a while, on certain Sundays I can sleep a little longer and I relish it. I kicked myself out of bed after a few moments of stretching and got dressed.

When I opened the door to my CHU, I couldn't help but squint out at the blazing brightness. There's always a tinge of haze or dust in the air around here. The wind kicks it up. Today, however, was very clear with a brilliant blue sky and light winds. I was marveling at the reminded me of home.

Yesterday was nice too. Perfect for the story I had the luck of covering for MND-B. My commander, SSG Edson (a broadcast journalist), Osman (our interpreter/translator), and myself ventured out to see how some people here on Victory Base Complex work with the youth of Iraq to help rebuild a Boy Scout/Girl Guide program. It was great! I saw and interacted with kids ranging in ages from 3 years old to 17 years old. I'll post the story and photos once it's released by MND-B.

So, today I was bringing SGT Risner to the Reserve retention office and we had the windows down and the radio blaring out "Rocket Man" by Elton John. I felt like I was somewhere in L.A. or Miami with the nice weather and tall palm trees swaying in the wind.

But, alas, all good things must come to an end. The wind, which got stronger as the day waned, brought in more dust and now, like days before, we have a beige haze that engulfs everything. It's like someone turned down the contrast on a photo.

So much for that beautiful weather. It was nice while it lasted and I'm glad I got to revel in it while it lasted. I'm actually missing the big, fat, dark clouds that precede a good thunderstorm that we see in Houston. Clouds rarely appear here. So I guess it isn't always dust and haze...once in a while we'll enjoy a jewel of a day. Pretty soon we'll endure the heat...that's another story altogether.

---And look out! Less than an hour later, that haze and dust moved out and the clear sky dominated the landscape again. Now, you can see all the stars twinkling and it's cooling down....time to head to my CHU.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

I Was Running...

Forrest Gump: "That day, for no particular reason, I decided to go for a little run. So I ran to the end of the road, and when I got there, I thought maybe I'd run to the end of town. And when I got there, I thought maybe I'd just run across Greenbow County. And I figured since I run this far, maybe I'd just run across the great state of Alabama. And that's what I did I ran clear across Alabama. For no particular reason, I just kept on going. I ran clear to the ocean. And when I got there, I figured since I'd gone this far, I might as well turn around, just keep on going. When I got to another ocean, I figured since I've gone this far, I might as well just turn back, keep right on going..."

This part in the movie, "Forrest Gump", was running through my head this morning. Reason being we arrived at the base of the hill at 0530 for some crack-of-the-dawn PT courtesy of SSG Burrell. I'm waiting around and members of our illustrious unit amble over and SSG Burrell exclaims, "We're going to run around Z Lake!" Thoughts start sauntering through my head..."Oh man...that's a big lake...I did PT last night in the gym...I wanna crawl back into my warm bed...etc."

So, thoughts aside, we formed up and started stretching. After stretching arms and legs to get the blood flowing, we started off and 1SG Martinez zips ahead of me, SGT Risner and SSG Burrell. Burrell, the talker, began rambling about this and that as we all keep in step. Me and SGT Risner were just content to run and try to keep up with 1SG. Before long, 1SG was a small speck in the distance and I forgot about him.

About mid-way through this run, I flashed back to my days as a cadet at the University of Houston. Back in 1997-1998, me and the other MSIII cadets ran around Roberston Stadium, then hit the ramps inside the stadium that you would walk up to get to your seat. Other days we would run the aisles inside of Hoffheinz Pavillion. Now, mind you, I was younger then but our instructor, MSG Riggs (probably around 45-50 yrs old then) was always kicking our butts in PT. I could never pass him. 1SG Martinez reminded me of him today.

Another thing about this run is the fact that I really don't recall any run I've done since then that was THAT long. According to a few people, that run was about 5K. It wound around small inlets and lined the small streets of Camp Liberty so the scenery wasn't lacking. Now, as I am typing this, my legs agree with SGT Risner who said it felt like 10 miles.

SSG Burrell noticed a group ahead of us and took off to join and then pass them. Show off. SGT Risner and I continued to shuffle onward, finishing the longest run in my recent memory in about 27 minutes. Not too shabby...

In the movie, Forrest is bombarded with questions from reporters who are struggling to maintain his pace. He answers with, "I just felt like running!" Well, I didn't just feel like running but, this isn't a movie. We're in a warzone and PT is essential to maintain our health and helps when we are in full gear and carrying our PA equipment. FYI, no, I don't hate PT...once we get going I actually enjoy it. It's a great cohesion tool for a unit too.

I can only imagine what we'll do next time so, thanks to SSG Burrell for putting together a pretty dang good running regiment for our unit PT....and 1SG, wait until we do sprints! I'll leave you in the dust....yelling, "Ruunnnn Forrest!"

"Did I ever tell you that I can run like the wind blows?" --short distances that is.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Tippin' our hats to you Starbucks!

The other day I received a package from home. It was full of what I had requested: coffee, chocolate syrup, tumbler mugs, and more coffee. There's a Starbucks close to my house that I hit up for my fix. I used to go to Deidrich's a lot (still do, but there's only one) but Starbucks is closer and their mocha frappucinos are good.
A few of the people in that Starbucks know me and now know my wife and daughter. They know I'm here in Baghdad and donated some coffee and a couple tumblers. Now we have a small stockpile of joe for our office. And, let me tell you, this office goes through coffee very quickly.
There isn't a Starbucks here in Baghdad but our office 'break room' has become the place to visit in the morning. As we walk from section to section, we can hear the coffeemaker and espresso machine going and the smell reminds me of walking into my favorite coffeeshop in the morning.
That's me and my commander in the photo. Everyone else was either at chow (eating dinner) or on the phone calling home (since we're 8 hrs ahead of Texas). Silverlake Village Starbucks deserves a big thank you from me and my unit for the coffee and mug donation. Thanks! It may seem like a little thing, but here, good coffee is a big thing. More espresso will be greatly appreciated when and if our friends at Starbucks (and my wife's loving care with shipping) decide to send more. Thanks Starbucks!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Teacher, Student Reunite in Warzone

I had a reality check of sorts the day before yesterday. A former student of mine, Pfc. Johnny Cunningham, a combat engineer with the 2nd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division has kept in touch with me through the years after his graduation from North Shore like many others have. He joined the Army after high school. Back when he was in 7th and 8th grade, he joined a new program that I started at North Shore Middle called LOTC (Leadership Officers Training Corps). It was like JROTC for middle school.
I taught it using Army basics with lessons in D&C for parades/formations, the Army values to build character, learning what leadership and the styles people use when they apply it, how to be a good follower, land navigation and orienteering, platoon team-building activities, armed drill team, unarmed drill team, color guard, and cool field trips to round it out. On the left is my group marching during a pass and review back in 2003. All of those kids are in college now.
Johnny was one of the 1st in that group that had swelled to well over 1000 kids that participated in the program during the seven years that I taught it. He was my first commander for the boys' drill team before drill team was merged into one group.
About a week before we left the states he emailed me telling me he was here at Camp Liberty and he was looking forward to running into me when we got here.
Well, the day before yesterday he emailed me telling me that his vehicle (an MRAP)was attacked, hit with an EFP (explosively formed penetrator). It's a thick, copper cone-shaped plate that is placed on a charge and when fired, melts, forms, and then can penetrate just about anything. When it hits armor, it can turn that into projectiles too because it melts. The vehicle pictured is one version of an MPAP.
So, I'm reading his email and I freeze until I get to the words, "I'm ok." He was the driver and escaped with torn-up fingers and some shrapnel in his leg. His TC (the person commanding the vehicle, right seat) was hit worse and Johnny applied first aid until help arrived. His buddy is still in Germany getting treatment.
So I'm thinking, "I have to see him." Yesterday, I started to track him down. I found where is unit is, even found his room and he wasn't there. I went to his TOC (tactical operations center) and spoke to his First Sergeant. We finally hooked up through Myspace and I told him what building I work in and he took the shuttle here.
It's always a cool thing when one of my former students shows up to say hi. I used to get that often when I taught at Galena Park ISD. Not so much now when I'm at Pasadena ISD...I'm new there teaching 12th grade English. I got that same feeling again as he walked up to me smiling and shouting, "SGT Burke!"
So Cunningham shows up and we go to chow, Spc. Johnson in tow because she's writing about our reunion here in Iraq. He and I exchange stories and he tells me about the attack. Afterwards, I brought him back to his hootch and he showed me the pictures of his vehicle. The damage was extensive. The whole front driver's side dashboard was ripped away and wires were hanging all over the place. The driver's side window (I don't know how thick it is...but it's thick!) was fractured. He pulled out a ziplock bag and showed me a 'souvenir' of copper that had almost killed him and his TC. It weighed about 2 lbs. If he had driven forward just 12 inches, he wouldn't have been able to see me, let alone email me. That molten hot gob of copper would've hit him.
Not many people walk away from an EFP attack. He's a very lucky guy and I'm very proud of him for staying calm and taking care of his TC after the attack. That's what Soldiers do. I remember when he was that little soldier-wannabe joining LOTC and his eyes danced when he was given a rifle and told to learn the 15-count manual of arms.
Sometimes, the world can be very small. Those days teaching LOTC were some of the best in my teaching career. I guess you can say, "If you teach them well, they will come back."