SAQLAWIYAH, Iraq -- The crisp air heralded the arrival of a new day, one filled with renewed hope and fresh beginnings for the citizens of Saqlawiyah. This farming village on the outskirts of Fallujah had remained nearly untouched by the military's helping hand until April, when Coalition and Iraqi forces began operating in the area.
As U.S. Marines and Iraq's own troops patrolled the streets, one Shawnee, Kan. native's team of civil affairs specialists was spearheading a mission to assist in toppling the weakened insurgency.
On Sept. 7, 35-year-old Maj. Chris E. Phelps' Marines executed a three-pronged operation of goodwill and charity to help empower the local government in dealing with the terrorists, while gaining the trust of the residents they represent.
Team 3, Detachment 2, 5th Civil Affairs Group, a group of five mobilized reservists who have worked approximately seven months alongside Iraqi leaders to restore Iraq's infrastructure, and military officials met with local government representatives to discuss security concerns and ongoing infrastructure redevelopment projects during the operation's first phase.
This was the eleventh such discussion that has taken place since April 27, when Marines first met with the city council. Since then, Phelps said he has seen considerable progress both in the city and in the way the community leaders and Marines interact with one another.
"I felt great coming out of this meeting, like it had all come together in the end," stated the 1993 University of Kansas graduate, whose civil affairs team is slated to return to the U.S. in late September. "Never in the seven months that we've been here had I heard any Iraqi tell us 'thank you' for what we do, except for today's city council meeting, when they said it to me twice. We've come a long way with the council since we started our meetings from scratch in April."
This gratitude is a direct result of the progress men like city council member Majeed Na'amah Khalifa and his fellow Saqlawiyahans have seen take place here since their first interaction with Marines.
"My community suffered much when U.S. forces pushed through Fallujah (in late 2004). CAG worked with us to restore and improve many of the essential services we have needed since then," stated Khalifa, who serves as the assistant to the city council's chairman, Sheik Abdul Jabbar. "We have sat together and discussed our problems many times to find the perfect solutions."
Notable among the progress city officials, local contractors and Phelps' team worked together to bring about were the improvements in the community's water purification and power distribution system.
Approximately $1.5 million dollars will be invested to renovate the local water plant and the piping that transports the water to the surrounding areas. A system that Phelps said has seen no maintenance in more than 30 years and has contaminated some of the populace with cholera.
Nearly one million dollars was also spent on revamping the city's power system. New power lines and transformers were installed to ensure that as many residents as possible have electricity in their homes. This system had received little repair in 25 years, and the restorations will affect tens of thousands of residents here, Khalifa said.
Once the city council meeting concluded, Team 3 headed out to Saqlawiyah's medical clinic, another site they helped rehabilitate during their time here.
There, the team handed Dr. Ayad al-Hadithy three pallets of medical supplies, including items such as syringes, laboratory gloves, and needle holders.
The more than $4,000 worth of supplies, as well as the shipping costs to freight them overseas, were paid for by Heart to Heart International, a non-governmental organization based out of Olathe, Kan.
Phelps said he had contacted his friend and former classmate Dan Neal, project manager for Heart to Heart International, about Saqlawiyah's severe shortage of medical supplies. Upon hearing this, Neal worked with the association's president and founder, Dr. Gary Morsch, and employees to pay for and ship these supplies out to a people in need.
"We get great benefit from these medicines, because we are always short on them here. This supply today will last us approximately one month," al-Hadithy said. "We always appreciate the help we receive from the CAG and our good cooperation with the Marines here."
Phelps said this donation of medical supplies is especially significant because relatively few NGOs currently operate in Iraq.
Stateside officials also recognized the importance these acts of charity play in winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi public.
"This (donation) symbolizes the spirit of the United States of America, and our military heroes in particular," wrote Kansas state senator Pat Roberts in a letter thanking Heart to Heart International for their contribution to Iraq. "Where others would oppress, our soldiers save lives. As a former Marine myself, I want to say, 'Thank you and Semper Fi' to Heart to Heart International and Major Phelps."
This donation is the latest in a string of humanitarian missions Team 3 has performed for this clinic.
In May, they 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.
"Whether it's (Marines) or NGOs donating supplies to the Saqlawiyah medical clinic, we'll continue to push medical supplies out to the community until they're able to fix the logistics train between them and the Ministry of Health," Phelps stated. "Some things in the country can remain broken for a while without anybody dying, but when it comes to medical issues, we have to step in and do something right away."
The team's busy day ended with a visit to Saqlawiyah's police headquarters, where military personnel were awarding many local residents compensation payments.
Altogether, the citizens received a total of $5,500 dollars for destruction of properties and personal injury caused as a result of counter-insurgency operations here.
After their busy day, Phelps expressed his gratitude to his team and to the generous citizens in America for making this humanitarian mission here possible.
"I want to personally thank Dr. Gary Morsch, Dan Neal, and the other great employees of Heart to Heart International," he stated. "Today, they made a difference in the world, and it was a great day for the people of Saqlawiyah."