AL KABANI, Iraq -- Marines from 1st Force Service Support Group joined with the leader of this fishing village, as well as a local Iraqi government official, to break ground June 8, 2004, for a $146,000 water purification system here.
During the ceremony, leaders of 3rd Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment, were pleased to learn that the project to bring clean water to community residents will also now encompass a second village nearby, potentially tripling the number of Iraqis to be helped.
The visit allowed the unit's commander, Lt. Col. Milt Wick, to meet personally with the village leader and a local Iraqi government official to ensure all parties were satisfied with the incoming system.
Wick also brought 24 Marines and sailors with him to deliver candy, toys, coloring books, crayons and packets of school supplies to the children, while corpsmen assessed the villagers' medical needs.
The unit has "adopted" Al Kabani and visits its residents regularly. Families of the troops ship the donated goods from the United States, so that their Marines can give them to the Iraqi villagers.
"We're very thankful," said the village's leader.
Over the past few months, Wick has attempted to build a strong relationship between himself and the leader.
"I don't see him as often as I would like, but when I do see him, we do good things," said Wick, a 42-year-old native of Winfield, Kan.
Now those good things are spreading to others.
At the direction of Iraq's water ministry, Thaer Handala, representative for the Khaldyah district, incorporated the second village after surveying the project site with engineers a day prior to the Marines' visit and finding that he could do the extra work without any additional cost.
To survive, the approximately 1,000 residents of this village have had to hand-carry and boil water from a nearby lake to drink, a process that still left bacteria in the water and caused numerous health problems.
"This project is very, very important to them because that is the only drinking water they will have," said Handala.
Marines from the reserve infantry battalion, who provide security at nearby Camp Taqaddum, have delivered 3,000 gallons of purified water every two weeks since April and plan to do so when necessary until this project is complete and the people have their own.
"Things are happening for the town. It's very good for us," said Cpl. Jesse C. Kuschel, a driver with the battalion and a 23-year-old native of Springfield, Mo.
The project, which is expected to serve fresh water to as many as 3,000 Iraqis, will also bring jobs to the area, said Handala. He promised the village leader that very few workers would be brought from elsewhere to complete the project.
"Anybody that needs a job from the village will have work," said Handala, speaking to the community leader during the ceremony.
Marines plan to visit the site regularly to assist with the project, if necessary, and to ensure "the dollars are spent wisely," said Wick. Yet, considering the benefits, fresh water for two villages, employment opportunities and the chance for Marines to work side-by-side with the Iraqi people at building their infrastructure, the cost is secondary.
"You can't put a dollar value on that," Wick said.
Al Kabani, like many rural Iraqi villages, hovers in poverty after being overlooked by Saddam Hussein's regime.
"Saddam had millions of dollars. He never did the water purification for the village," said Handala.
Hussein invested much in stockpiling weapons, which now litter the countryside.
"My battalion, we uncover weapons caches. We have blown up hundreds and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, the cheapest of which cost a hundred dollars a piece," said Wick. "Some of them probably cost in the tens of thousands of dollars."
"If that money had been spent for the benefit of the Iraqi people, how much further ahead would they be?" he said.
A Coalition Provisional Authority program that allows commanders to identify and support civil affairs projects in their area funded the contract, said 1st Lt. Johnny F. Luevano, a 1st FSSG disbursing officer and a 31-year-old native of Artesia, N.M.
Marines fronted Handala $100,000, and will make two more installments of $23,000 as work nears completion. The contract for the work was signed on June 4, 2004, by Handala and the Marines. The job is expected to be completed by the end of June.
The project is just one among many the Marines have launched aiming to improve the Iraqis' quality of life.
"It's what we hoped for from the Americans," said the village leader after the ceremony.