CAMP BAHARIA, Iraq -- On the verge of coming home, they still remember their first impressions of Fallujah in early March. It was desolate, ruined, and filthy. The staccato sound of gunshots and tank cannons still seemed to echo through the abandoned city streets and crumbled buildings months after major conflict had ended.
"It looked like something out of post-World War II Germany," stated Sgt. Matthew Dreher, a 25-year-old reservist from Arlington, Va. "Everything was destroyed and there was really nobody walking about the city streets."
It was this portrait of misery that Dreher's six-man civil affairs unit, Team 3, Detachment 2, 5th Civil Affairs Group, set out to repaint immediately after their arrival here.
The provisional reserve unit, created in January, came armed only with their rifles and a rudimentary knowledge of how to accomplish the massive task before them; helping rebuild a city in shambles and restoring the area's broken infrastructure.
Dreher said Team 3 members had received hasty pre-deployment classes while in the states on Iraqi culture and how to conduct Civil Military Operations (CMO). But much of their knowledge of performing humanitarian missions was drawn from their civilian occupations. Policemen, firefighters, engineers and civil workers all came together as Team 3 to embark on their humanitarian mission.
Seven months after first arriving here, the Marines reflected on the progress and community growth they helped bring about, a success not created by the team's efforts alone.
"Every project we did in these areas, we accomplished with the help of the Iraqi government and local contractors," explained Maj. Chris E. Phelps, Team 3's leader. "We merely worked as project managers and facilitators behind the scenes, sort of like the wizard behind the curtain in 'The Wizard of Oz.' Our goal was never to come here to do things for the people, but to help set up their government and infrastructure enough so they could do it themselves. Ultimately, we worked to 'fire' ourselves and make ourselves obsolete."
Altogether, Phelps' team spent $4.85 million dollars on 38 completed, ongoing or projects pending approval by the local government. These community projects affected the Northern Fallujah area and nearby Saqlawiyah, a rural township miles outside the city.
In Fallujah alone, Team 3 coordinated with local officials and contractors to remove 200 tons of rubble from the city streets.
This beautified the area and made the flow of foot and vehicle traffic more efficient, while also eliminating places for terrorists to stash improvised explosive devices.
Additionally, Team 3 helped contract a local mine-clearing company to de-mine the fields surrounding Fallujah's train station. Insurgents previously occupying the city placed these explosives here in hopes of deterring the Coalition Forces' advance, Phelps said.
He added that Iraq's Ministry of Transportation wanted to improve roads near the previously mined field, but needed it cleared before labor commenced.
Notable also is the progress and democratic social reform Team 3 Marines helped bring about in Saqlawiyah. This farming community had remained nearly untouched by the military's helping hand until April, when Coalition and Iraqi forces began operating in the area.
"When we first got to Saqlawiyah, the people didn't know the fighting in Fallujah was over," said Staff Sgt. Darian Patterson, Team 3's staff noncommissioned officer-in-charge. "You had (displaced) people living inside schools, because they had nowhere else to go."
Many of these citizens' temporary residences were in disrepair, Patterson continued. In Saqlawiyah's al-Dahr school's restroom, there was one working toilet and no sinks for their 160 students.
"In the U.S., we never see raw sewage, especially not at places with kids, such as schools," Patterson stated. "My wife is a social worker, and all I could think about was how she would go ballistic in a place like this."
Working alongside Saqlawiyah's city council, the team began addressing the school’s sanitation and structural flaws. Thirty-three schools in the community received first aid kits, and local contractors refurbished the al-Dahr facilities. Now, the school has running water, four new toilets and two new sinks.
The Saqlawiyah medical clinic was another site Team 3 helped improve. The Marines and stateside nongovernmental organizations would routinely donate and distribute thousands of dollars worth of medical supplies there, including syringes, laboratory gloves and sanitizer solution.
In May, the team facilitated the clean-up of a biohazard material dump site behind the clinic, along with bringing biohazard waste incinerators to prevent future buildup.
Navy Seabees working with Team 3 had also erected an information read board outside the clinic, where the two- to- three hundred residents who visit the clinic daily can read about upcoming community events.
"We always appreciate the help we receive from the CAG and our good cooperation with the Marines here," stated Dr. Ayad al-Hadithy, one staff member at the clinic. "They have helped us restore many vital services to this clinic and its patients."
Approximately $1.5 million dollars will also be invested to renovate the local water plant and the piping that transports it to the surrounding areas, a system Phelps said has seen no maintenance in more than 30 years and has been sickening some of the populace with cholera.
Nearly one million dollars was also spent on revamping the city's power system by installing new power lines and transformers to ensure that as many residents as possible have electricity in their homes. This system had been untouched in 25 years, and the restoration will affect tens of thousands of residents here, said Majeed Na'amah Khalifa, a member of the Saqlawiyah city council.
It is Khalifa's own body of legislation that is to thank for many of these projects coming to fruition, Phelps said. Since late April, when Marine and Iraqi military leaders first met with the council, Phelps said he has noticed vast improvements in the local officials' relationships with their community.
"The CAG had started to back off from our more active role in city affairs lately, because the Saqlawiyah city council is speaking to the council in Ramadi and making a case for their people's needs," he continued, explaining how Saqlawiyah's representatives bring up community projects their people would like to see accomplished to the governing body in the provincial capital city. "Council members would tell me that local people now stop them on the streets to thank them and say, 'Hey, you're really representing me.'"
Working in conjunction with the local government and Team 3 were the Marines of Company A, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment and Iraqi Security Forces. Together, they provided a secure environment for police forces to reenter Saqlawiyah. Since 2004, the community had been lacking civil law enforcement personnel. Currently, approximately 70 policemen patrol the streets while operating out of a headquarters safeguarded from insurgents by Company A Marines and ISF personnel.
"I feel that everything came together in Saqlawiyah in the end," Phelps stated. "All the good things that happened in that area were a direct result of what the Marines on this team did with the community. Saqlawiyah was our little slice of the war."
After months of tirelessly conducting civil military operations, Patterson said Team 3 will leave Iraq richer for the experience of having aided an emerging democratic nation. Almost as valuable as the infrastructure they started helping restore is the personal growth each Marine underwent here.
"I know I came here with a closed mindset, not wanting to care about the people and only wanting to do my job to get home," he continued. "Meeting people like Dr. Ayad and our 'terps' (interpreters) changed all that. This job made us all remember that we're warriors as well as human beings. I'm excited about getting home to my wife and son, but I know we'll be leaving some great friends behind."
"We came here thinking we would help hundreds, but we ended up helping thousands," Dreher added. "We put our hearts and souls into this job for the past seven months. Now we see people walking down the streets and markets open for business. I feel like I'll leave a big piece of my life back here."
The team will depart Iraq in late September upon being replaced by members from the 6th CAG, who will continue their legacy. Phelps said his Marines will return to their respective parent reserve commands, and the provisional 5th CAG will be disbanded "to go down in Marine Corps history."
Now, Team 3 leaves Iraq with one of Phelps' favorite quotes in mind, that of 18th century philosopher Edmund Burke stating, "The only thing necessary for evil to exist is for good men to remain silent and do nothing."
These six men took these words to heart during their time in Iraq, and learned that even a small team operating in a country ravaged by war and insurgency can create a ripple of hope for a brighter tomorrow.