Jim Hake from Spirit of America just got back from Iraq, and sent out a nicely detailed e-mail summarizing his recent trip there. Unfortunately it's not posted on their website yet, so I'll "republish" it below.
An aside: The parallels, and contrasts, to the trips made by peace activists thirty years ago to Vietnam are striking. Then, as now, citizen groups went "under their own steam" to see what was going on in a faraway place and what they could do to help. Private groups would tour both North and South Vietnam and try to meet with all parties to see what could be done to achieve peace.
The results of the two missions couldn't be more different. Then, almost without exception, groups traveling to Vietnam would come back transformed. Even the idealistic ones, with bright ideas and shining faces, when confronted with the debacle that Vietnam had become, would change their message and mission radically. Once they'd seen first-hand the incompetence of leadership in all areas, the hopelessness and war-weariness of the people involved, they would suddenly stop talking about what could be done to win and start talking about what could be done to get out.
Now, it seems even missions to Iraq with a strongly negative spin (which lately seems to include anyone carrying a press pass), when pressed, will admit the situation is not in fact completely hopeless. People with less of an "anyone-but-Bush" agenda, who are more interested in succeeding in the mission at hand than placing blame on whoever or whatever got them there, are of course far more optimistic, although no less guarded.
It's time to let the dead bury the dead, and get on with what needs to be done to finish this successfully.
I'm back from my trip to Iraq. This message provides observations, conclusions, implications for Spirit of America moving forward, a few photographs and an interesting story or two.
This is a long message so if you read no further please understand three things: (1) there is hope for Iraq, (2) the support of the American people can make a critical difference to the Iraqi people and their future, and (3) our job at Spirit of America is to help the American people make that difference.
My goals for the trip were to:
1. Validate - or not - the key assumptions behind our plan to increase the scope and scale of Spirit of America's activities in Iraq.
2. Define the support most needed by Americans serving in Iraq for improving the lives of, and relationships with, the Iraqi people.
3. Determine the best approach for having SoA personnel in country to support our expanded activities.
4. Identify the ideas, people and programs with the greatest potential to effect an immediate and lasting improvement in the lives of Iraqi citizens at the grass roots level.
The trip was invaluable. The goals above were largely but not entirely achieved. On #3and #4 we made good progress but more work is needed.
The situation in Iraq is difficult and dangerous. The bad news we see, read and hear does happen even though it isn't nearly the whole story. But my most important conclusion was an encouraging one. There is hope for a positive, free and peaceful future for Iraq. A key part of the hope is the American people can engage and help the Iraqi people build a postive future. That opportunity is based much more on the involvement of the American private sector and citizens . much more person to person/people to people than government to government.
With the inevitable ups and downs in Iraq, it will be challenging to remember that there is hope. It is only hopeless if we give up. I know that may sound simplistic or na=EFve but it is true.
Those serving in Iraq - military and civilian - face a very tough situation. They deserve our full support. So do the Iraqi people, especially those who are working hard at great risk to build a better future for their country.
My trip was from May 28 to June 4. I spent 1-=BD days in Baghdad, 4 days in Ramadi and 1 day in Fallujah. These are three of the most difficult areas in Iraq today. Ramadi is approx. 60 miles west of Baghdad. Fallujah is 30 miles west. While in Ramadi and Fallujah I was a guest of the 1st Marine Division. I stayed and traveled with them. I was in Baghdad as an "unattached" civilian but took the necessary steps to move about safely. I was also in Amman, Jordan coming and going.
I was accompanied by LtCol David Couvillon (the first Marine that SoA supported last summer) and two retired members of U.S. Special Forces. All have had extensive experience in Iraq. They were along to provide insight and analysis on our next steps. LtCol Couvillon was a Battalion Commander during the war last spring and after war served for 5 months as the Governor of Wassit Province. There are 11 provinces in Iraq and his position was akin to a Governor of one of our states. Couv has a great connection to and fondness for the Iraqi people. He also has a great understanding of how to make progress at the grass roots level.
During the trip I was able to spend time with and talk to Iraqis (from the Ministerial level to local leaders to "ordinary" people - mainly men, boys and girls), civilians working in Iraq, CPA personnel and, of course, the US Marines at all levels (Commanding General to Private First Class).
With the Marines in Ramadi we visited a neighborhood where the Marines were helping to build a mosque and a health clinic. We traveled in a Humvee convoy. There were about 25 Marines, an interpreter and us (four civilians). The Marines were led by an exceptional young officer: Capt. Egan. We spent time with the local Imam as well as boys and girls of all ages. We distributed school supplies, soccer balls and Frisbees that had been donated by Spirit of America and our supporters earlier this year.
Here's a photo of us playing Frisbee and me throwing one. Given my performance in windy conditions I don't think I'll be coaching Frisbee teams in Ramadi any time soon.
bWith the group of
boys below I was talking about soccer (with the help of our
interpreter). Two of the guys were boasting that they are excellent
goalies. I told them my son had scored four goals in his game the week
before. They seemed doubtful until I pointed out I was sure that
goalie wasn't as good as they were. We all had a good laugh.
The adults and
children were happy to see us, happy to talk and play. And, like
children anywhere (at least mine!) happy to get gifts. The women of
the community made flatbread for us during the visit. Fresh and hot it
was excellent. Clearly, not every visit to a neighborhood in Iraq
would be like that one but it was one of those nice human moments. It
was also instructive to see how the Marines operate and relate to
local communities. Very impressive.
After we returned to Camp Blue Diamond we videotaped a few of the young Marines talking about their experiences in Iraq. We'll get these up on the Web soon. Just before we left a Staff Sergeant Delgado approached me and said, "Sir, if you could get sandals for the kids around here, it would be a big help. Lots of kids didn't come out today because they don't have anything to wear on their feet and the streets are too hot." THAT is one great example why it's important to spend time in the field and with the men and women who are in it every day.
We're getting on this and you'll soon be getting a message about SSgt. Delgado's sandal request.
In Fallujah we spent time at a center where Iraqi civilians meet with the Marines to work on civil affairs and rebuilding projects. The center also serves as a training site for the Iraq Civil Defense Corps (ICDC). There I had a chance to discuss with the son of a local sheikh ideas for a neighborhood sports program that Spirit of America is considering supporting. He was positive on the idea and asked that we come back to meet with other local leaders to explore it further.
Also in Fallujah we visited a village on the outskirts of the city where the Marines were rebuilding a road. It was a rural village of about 20 homes. People largely live off the land - crops, goats and sheep. The Marines came to talk about the road project. We also passed out Frisbees, toys and school supplies to the local kids. Here are some children from the village with Spirit of America school supply kits.
Back at Camp Blue
Diamond we met with the two officers (Maj. Chandler and Maj. Dunham)
responsible for providing the TV equipment donated by Spirit of
America to the 7 Iraqi stations in Al Anbar. When we met about =BD of
the equipment had been delivered to the stations and technical
training was being planned. With the new equipment Iraqi personnel at
one of the stations took to the streets with camcorders to do "man in
the street" interviews. When they broadcast the interviews the
received numerous calls with positive feedback. Things like that
associated with a free press that we take for granted are entirely new
inmost of Iraq. We'll be getting a more detailed update on the TV gear
and stations in the next few days and will email you as soon as we
Also back at Camp Blue Diamond in Ramadi we met with the Director of Economic Development for Al Anbar Province. He is spearheading the creation of women's sewing centers in the Ramadi-Fallujah region. These centers will provide women with a chance to make money, some for the first time, and improve their lives and their families'.
Marines' Commanding General Jim Mattis is very enthusiastic about the project- both for its economic impact and because it will provide women a place to discuss women's issues (day care is provided). He has asked if we can help by providing the sewing machines. For starters we are looking for people to buy the first 50 sewing machines costing $475 each. You can support that request by clicking here: . http://w= ww.spiritofamerica.net/requests/1086384717.html . If things go well with those, we'll do our best to provide 950 more, thus helping 1000 women.
The Marines are in frequent-enough danger in the Ramadi and Fallujah areas such that safety is never taken for granted. Each time we left base to visit a local village or community we were briefed on recent threats to Marines convoys (usually from IEDs - Improvised Explosive Devices). The base at Ramadi (Camp Blue Diamond) was mortared while we were there. After they were launched it was a nervous 45 seconds before they landed uneventfully about 400 yards away from our trailer. Fortunately, no one was hurt. Attacks are not constant but occur often enough to restrict the military's freedom of movement and action. To get around requires traveling in armed Humvee convoys or helicopters. We owe a great debt to the men and women that risk their lives every day over there.
As odd as this may sound, it is good news that things are not worse. It is a small, small percentage of the people that are fighting the coalition, our troops and the new Iraqi government. If that weren't the case we would hear much more bad news. It is easy to attack, easy to terrorize. That things are not worse evidences, in my view, that there is more hope than one might think and that the vast majority of Iraqis are not aligned with the future the terrorists and coalition fighters represent.
Conclusions and Implications for SoA
* There is hope for a relatively free, peaceful and prosperous society in Iraq even though the situation is very difficult and the challenges are enormous,
* The support and assistance of the American people (as distinct from the US Government) is essential to the progress of the Iraqi people. The best hope of Iraq turning out well in large part lies in the support and commitment of the American people.
* We will continue to support requests from and needs identified by Americans serving in Iraq. These projects currently support Marines, Army, Air Force and SeaBees and we're the things providing range from sandals, soccer balls and school supplies to sewing machines and TV and radio equipment.
* It is essential that we also support those Iraqis that are champions of a new Iraq and who are taking the initiative to improve the country in ways small and large. These people represent the future of the country and, in many ways, of the Middle East. By standing for freedom and a better life they are risking their lives
* There is an opportunity to increase the scope and scale of Spirit of America to positive effect in Iraq with the potential to "be the difference that makes the difference" in key areas. In the face of enormous needs and an infinite number of good things to do, accomplishing this requires a focused strategy.
* There are 3 areas of strategic focus for Spirit of America that deserve our greatest attention. They are the areas about which both the US Military and Iraqis are most enthusiastic.
1. Economic development programs - such as job training and microfinance. Our providing tools and sewing machines fits in this category. Housing and construction related projects emerged as high impact because of the jobs and visible signs of progress they create in addition to needed housing stock.
2. Youth programs, especially sports programs and support for education.
3. Media and information projects - such as training and equipment for Iraqi-owned and operated television and radio stations.
* In cases it will be better to conduct some of our projects as the American people without a direct or apparent link to the military or US Government. This approach will make it easier to establish the person-to-person, people-to-people links that we seek. In some cases it will increase the results we are able to produce - both in the eyes of the military and the Iraqi people.
* It will be essential to have a Spirit of America in country presence.
* There is no way to operate in Iraq without physical risk; i.e., SoA in country personnel includinng Iraqis, will be at risk of attack. Anyone who visibly works for progress in the country is an enemy of terrorists who seek chaos and a potential target for criminals who see financial opportunity in murder or kidnapping. We are still assessing the best way to structure our in country presence. In any scenario much of our work will be managed and executed by Iraqis (and, we are developing good contacts in that regard).
In the coming weeks you will hear more from us about:
* Status of projects you've already supported in Iraq and Afghanistan including the television station equipment and tools for Iraq and the soccer gear and
* New requests from Americans serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
* Our plans for increasing the scope of our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan and providing focus to the desire of the American people to help
Lastly, I want to thank the men and women of the Marines who put themselves in harms way to host us and ensure that we were able to move about safely. LtCol John Lutkenhouse went to great lengths to arrange meetings, trips and travel so that our visit achieved its goals. In fact, our "dance card" was so full that one of our team fell asleep standing up during one meeting. Fortunately, he caught himself before hitting the ground. I was doing the same sitting down.
As always, thank you for your support - whether that involves donating your time or money or simply reading these messages and considering if there are ways you can help.
All the best,