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Marine contribution puts Iraqi school on right track for future

29 Aug 2004 | Lance Cpl. Samuel Bard Valliere

Marines put aside their rifles and broke out their rulers Aug. 26, 2004, as they checked up on one of their investments in Iraq's future by paying a visit to a small local elementary school.

The Marines, reservists from the 3rd Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment, wanted to see the harvest of more than $5,500 they gave the Iraqi government to spend on making improvements to a school in Al Kabani, a fishing village near Camp Taqaddum.

Purchasing the school supplies was part of an ongoing effort by the unit aimed at improving the quality of life in the village near Camp Taqaddum, the headquarters to the 1st Force Service Support Group, which elements of the battalion provide security for.

For years, the children in the town have been using the same makeshift desks and sheets of painted wood used as blackboards, things that if replaced would improve the learning environment for the students, the village's teachers told the Marines in March.

"It's real good," a young Iraqi boy wearing bright red pants that looked to be older than him said through a translator. "I have the urge now to learn. I think I will learn very much."

The new, sturdy desks, which have benches built onto them meant to hold two students, are a far cry from the ones made of scrap-wood the children were using.

The principal's once Spartan office now has a refrigerator, a water cooler, ornate rugs and a computer for the students to use.

"Before, the government wouldn't come to do improvements like that and now we have it," said Muktar Ismael Hamaad, the village leader, through a translator. "We thank the coalition and the Americans, our neighbors."

Headquartered in Bridgeton, Mo., the battalion has awarded contracts worth approximately $350,000 for numerous improvements for communities near Camp Taqaddum.

In March, the battalion's troops visited with Al Kabani's leaders, who told them the village needed clean water, a generator to provide power to the people's homes, health care and school improvements, in hopes the Marines would be able help finance them.

After funding and overseeing the development of a water-purification system and generator in the village, and conducting basic medical assessments during frequent visits to the community, the Marines have now kept their last promise to the people.

The purifier, which pumps water to every home in the town, has also benefited the school.

"That is probably one of the nicest schools in Iraq now. I've been to a lot of them, and this is the only one with a working bathroom," said Maj. Luke W. Kratky, 33, the battalion's information officer and native of Fenton, Mo.

Although Thayer Hamdallah, the village's district representative, had the furniture ready to be delivered some time ago, he postponed delivering it to the six-room schoolhouse for fear it would be stolen by thugs while the children were on their summer vacation.

Now, a security guard will be posted at the school 24-hours-a-day.

Al Kabani's school seems to be a microcosm of the Iraqi education system, which declined after the Gulf War due to the impact of war, sanctions, neglect and isolation, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

According to a UNICEF press release, most of Iraq's schools need repairs and another 5,000 need to be built to accommodate all of Iraq's 12 million school-age children.

Almost half of the country's 15- to 24-year-old male population and more than 75 percent of its women in the same age group are illiterate.

United Nations and military efforts have made some progress in rebuilding the learning system. As of March, more than 2,500 of the country's 18,000 schools have seen some improvements.

When the interim government took power it assumed the responsibility of restoring Iraq's debilitated school system. However, 3/24's Marines will continue to try and help the new government by playing a hand in improving Al Kabani until they pass the torch on to the 2nd Battalion, 10th Marine Regiment, an artillery unit based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., which will relieve 3/24 in the coming weeks.
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