FALLUJAH, Iraq -- It is said that experience is the best teacher, the common denominator that unites people of different backgrounds who have lived under similar conditions and tackled similar challenges.
For Sgt. Kent D. Padmore, a childhood spent in the poverty-stricken island nation of Trinidad prepared him for the monumental task he would undertake decades later.
"I came to the United States in my mid-twenties, already having education," said 38-year-old Padmore, a graduate of Psychology and Sociology at Trinidad's Valsayn Teachers College. "I didn't want to be the type of immigrant who came to America and enjoyed the benefits of being successful without giving back to the country. I felt I needed to earn my right to be here."
He enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1994 to repay dues to his new home.
Today, he lives in southwestern Miami's Kendall district, and works for the city's fire department. In times of war such as these, however, Padmore leaves behind his home and four-year-old son, Kemario, to serve the nation he vowed to defend nearly 11 years ago.
He relies as much on his experiences as an infantryman as he does on the experiences of his childhood to accomplish his assignment overseas.
Padmore currently serves as a guard chief for Fallujah's Civil-Military Operations Center.
Padmore has helped his team of Marines and Iraqi policemen search all citizens coming into the center for weapons and explosives. One of his biggest challenges has been reconciling cultural differences between U.S. personnel and the Iraqi populace.
"There's a difference in the way business is conducted in America versus in third-world countries," Padmore said. "The average American understands their concept of order; if you go somewhere to conduct business, you form a line. In third-world countries, getting stuff done is all about who you know. Coming from this type of background myself, it allows me to be more patient and not as easily offended when people here don't follow instructions or conduct themselves in what we would consider an orderly manner."
Often times, Padmore said the local people's desire to provide for their families drives them to be disorderly and demanding when seeking financial assistance from CMOC personnel. Padmore is the first face they see upon entering the center, so he uses his calm demeanor to control the crowd.
"My background has allowed me to empathize with the poverty, desperation and neediness you find here," Padmore said. "I've had to find the right amount of patience, compassion and firmness to help the people."
Padmore and his team are particularly helpful on Thursdays. He said the Iraqis refer to this day as ‘Khamis,’ and that Aug. 11 was just one example of a day they've come to know and love.
"Thursdays are compensation days, when people come here with damage claims as a result of (previous and current) military activities throughout the city," he said. "My whole team is very enthusiastic about Thursdays, because we traditionally give out toys, books and clothing to the children as well. Even though it's their busiest day here, they all look forward to it just because for half an hour, they get to give toys out to the kids."
According to Cmdr. Dale White, Regimental Combat Team-8's chaplain, caring citizens from all over the U.S. donate and mail these toys to his office. On an average week, White receives as many as ten- to- fifteen boxes of goodies, which he in turn pushes out to units around town for distribution to local kids
Padmore's Marines hand out these treats to the kids while their parents are searched and their credentials verified prior to entering the CMOC.
"It's heartwarming to wear this uniform and be able to give to the children, even when you know that some of their family members may not welcome you here," Padmore said. "But every one little heart that you touch may create a friendship or a love toward us that may affect the next generation. If the insurgency seeks to recruit these children someday, they may remember the touch and smile of a Marine, and the toys we gave them when they had nothing."
Though these missions are meant to reach out to the children, it is often Padmore's crew who ends up being touched. He recalled one particular story of a family who forever changed his life.
Several months ago, a mother and her two daughters, both of whom were burned and disfigured during the push through Fallujah, came to the CMOC seeking financial compensation. The mother had described the family's father as crazy, and explained that her son and several of his cousins had been killed during last year's battle.
"They came here for help, but day after day, they stood quietly off to the side, while the rest of the crowd was being loud and aggressive," Padmore related. "I was able to get them help and tell them we were sorry for what had happened to their family. The mother said, 'We're not angry at you; we are angry at the insurgents.' Her children were physically and emotionally scarred, but she still had the ability to love us."
Padmore added that they came back one month later just to say hello, and have come back often ever since. He developed a special bond with the youngest daughter, 10-year-old Farah.
Padmore said that after several months of frequent visits, both he and the child's mother expressed a desire to have him take Farah back to the U.S. as an adopted child with a brighter future in America. Though Farah agreed to this, Padmore remains uncertain as to the issues' legality, and whether this will someday be possible.
"I'd like nothing more than to take her home to be a sister to my son. For the rest of my life, I'll never be able to forget her."
Daily interaction with people such as this family has helped Padmore see past the stereotype tha many battle-weary Marines succumb to, the belief that many Iraqis support the insurgency.
"The people's belief system is not represented by the insurgency," he said. "There are lots of good people here who don't like the terrorists and want to work with us, even though many are afraid of the possible consequences for themselves and their families."
"People back home often don't get a clear picture of what's really going on here. Often times, the simple stories, the most meaningful ones, go untold. It's in the journals, the letters, and the memories of the individual Marines, sailors and soldiers that you'll find them."
For Padmore’s team, the uphill battle to help rebuild Fallujah and foster understanding between two vastly different cultures continues.
"The winning of hearts and minds is a key factor now, and missions like those we do here at the CMOC will ultimately help us build better relations with the people," Padmore stated. "Winning the war means that children here have homes, education and clothing. Winning the war means that everybody ends up in a position that’s beneficial for them in the end."