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Kirkuk airmen provide relief supplies


Release Date: 1/5/2004

by Capt. Stan Paregien 506th Air Expeditionary Group Public Affairs

1/5/2004 - KIRKUK AIR BASE, Iraq (AFPN) -- The words of a Kurdish refugee woman living in a tent on the outskirts of Kirkuk keep ringing in the ears of all who heard it.

"This is no life for my children here," the mother said, pointing to the dirt her young child walked through with no shoes.

"This is no life in Iraq," she cried out as chaplains and armed escorts from the Air Force and Army stationed here made their way through a curious and gathering crowd. The six servicemembers were there to deliver food, clothing and toys for the children living in poverty.

Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Gary R. Garvey, from the U.S. Air Force Chaplain Service in Washington, and Chaplain (Capt.) Shelia Wilson, from Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., made a joint effort to help their new community in Iraq. In the spirit of the season, the chaplains from the 506th Air Expeditionary Group went to downtown Kirkuk with the Army recently to deliver several loads of donated boxed goods sent from the United States.

"It was all I could do to keep from crying," Chaplain Wilson said. "Did anyone know these people were living here and in such need except the people themselves? They offered me homemade bread and water and it was an honor for them to welcome us into their small community."

Chaplain Garvey said he was amazed to go out in the mud hut village and see women of beauty in colorful clothes sitting on the dirty ground holding babies that could be models in magazines.

"Then you see some of the teenage kids (who) look three times as old as they should, with wrinkles and tough skin that is so sad," he said. "We went to give them clothes, teddy bears and candy. All this was reduced to one common denominator when we heard the words, 'this is no life,' coming from that woman."

Within the encampment, though, there were positive signs of life and a few smiles for the visitors. In another area, the women made a type of tortilla bread and gave it to the airmen and soldiers to eat.

The Kurdish children watched the six Americans closely, their eyes becoming wider, as stuffed animals were pulled from bags and handed to them.

At times the crowd surged to the front of the line all at once, making it difficult to maintain order. Their needs were obvious.

One woman brought her child up and took an airman's hand and placed it on the boy's face. It was hot with a fever.

Amid the flies and runny noses, an older man told the Americans how he had just been released from spending more than 30 years in a Ba'athist Party prison because he refused to join the Republican Guard. He now celebrates his freedom in his own mud hut; poor by many standards, but free at last.

Desperate measures were tried by some. One Kurdish woman was ready to give up her child to a young airman to take back to the United States. It was clear she wanted to try and get her child out of the current predicament. She had legal papers in one hand and the child in the other. Several women blocked the truck door open in an attempt to keep the vehicle from leaving the camp.

Later, the airmen visited an elementary school in the city of Kirkuk. The children only attend half the day, because of space and supply limitations.

"I was so overwhelmed by the need of the kids as well as the enthusiasm," Chaplain Wilson said. "There is so much need as well as potential for excellence here. I was grateful to share what little we had. We did honor the children by letting them reach in our boxes and choose what kind of pencil or candy they wanted."

She saw something in the eyes of the children that told her they now had hope for a better life without Hussein, Chaplain Wilson said.

"They do have a chance for a better future and a real potential for it with us now in the area," she said. "The kids were very loving and caring toward us as they saw Americans bringing them gifts and friendship. As a foreigner, I appreciated the opportunity to go into another culture and hope we are part of being good ambassadors to these people."

As the group made its way through the gates of the school, children came down from the second floor balcony and spilled out of the hallways. They quickly converged on the Americans in the courtyard, touching their arms and shaking their hands.

"Hey mister soldier," said a girl touching an airman's arm.

Chaplain Garvey yelled out words that the children mimicked.

"Flubba-dubba-duck," he yelled, and the children returned it to him with laughter. He kept the fun going by joining another airman in singing "Happy Birthday" to a group of children who were celebrating their special day during the month. Eventually they were able to meet privately with teachers and pupils.

"We saw a need at the school too," Chaplain Garvey said. "The amount of poverty and desperation after the Hussein regime is legion. It was invigorating to see the kids so responsive. Hopefully they will grow up in this free Iraq because we were here. Kids just love to hear you talk and sing and know that you care about them. We will help them again in the future."

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