UMM HIDAR, Iraq -- A picture may be worth a thousand words but a smile speaks volumes more. A recent visit to this small village from Marines and Sailors bivouacked near here in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom yielded gallons of grins and goodwill. Villagers from Umm Hidar, population about 2,000, happily swarmed a small group of servicemembers as they handed out food and medical supplies outside a local Iraqi clinic.
"They looked so happy," says Lt. Cmdr. Ben Orchard, 48, battalion chaplain, Headquarters and Services Company, 6th Engineer Support Battalion, about the cheerful reception American forces received from Iraqi villagers. Orchard and a small group of 6th ESB Marines and Sailors joined Navy medical and Marine Corps civil affairs personnel for the humanitarian and medical assistance mission. The impetus of 6th ESB's visit came from the overwhelming support of Americans back home who have sent so many care package items that the unit felt it had enough to share with its Iraqi neighbors. So many packages arrived for battalion troops that small stockpiles of free goodies began to crowd work areas.
"It helped us by helping them," says Orchard, who lives in Idaho Falls, Idaho.
Orchard contacted 1st Marine Expeditionary Forces' 3rd Civil Affairs Group looking for a place to donate the excess "geedunk." Already planning for a medical assistance mission with the Navy's Fleet Hospital 3, also based here, civil affairs officials merged the two missions. The gesture did not go unnoticed.
"They were very grateful and thanked us," says Maj. George Deborde, 36, civil affairs liaison officer, 3rd CAG, from Orange, Calif. Deborde's unit visited the village's clinic in early April during the war to assess the local facility's medical inventory and equipment. They returned earlier this week to re-assess the clinic and decided to "do a good gesture and provide medical supplies that they immediately need," says Deborde.
Navy doctors visited with the local physician and his staff before collecting up surplus medical supplies and equipment to donate to the sparse, six-room clinic. "They have a stocked pharmacy, but not well stocked," says Deborde.
The unit brought bandages, pharmaceutical items and even a surplus field hospital bed to fill in the gaps.
"We knew that they were short of supplies so we wanted to help out until the country gets back on its feet," says Navy Capt. John Gibson, 52, Fleet Hospital 3's executive officer from Pensacola, Fla., the unit's home station.
But, says Deborde, "This is not meant as a long-term fix. We're taking baby steps. [The Iraqis] understand that their living conditions are not going to change overnight."
Military officials plan to report the clinic's needs to incoming non-governmental organizations that can provide more comprehensive assistance, he adds.
The exchange between the two groups was not one-sided. Marines and Sailors say they walked away from the visit with something also. "The thing that sticks in my head is the young kid who was so excited to go to America," says Lance Cpl. Brian Eagleheart, 26, an intelligence analyst with Headquarters and Services Co., 6th ESB, from Portland, Ore. "I'll never forget it."
It's still too early to see a "serious impact" from the Iraqi's recent liberation, adds Eagleheart, but "they are beginning to realize that they have an opportunity to control their lives."
Iraq's future generation, which may have the most to gain from the ousting of Saddam Hussein, made a strong and energetic appearance. Gaggles of children darted from one Marine to another in search of candy, pens or "anything American," says Eagleheart.
Many of the Marines and Sailors took time to play with Iraqi children and pose for photos with them. Showing Iraqis the instantaneous images from a digital camera was "a big hit," says Orchard. "I don't think some of them had ever seen anything like that."
The visit brought some, like 25-year-old chaplain's assistant Cpl. John McGill, closer to home. "There was a little girl that reminded me of my little girl," says the Elkton, Md.,-based father of a 3-year-old daughter. "Seeing the smile on her face [helped me] envision the smile on my daughter's face," he said.