3rd BCT PAO, 4th Inf. Div., MND-B
BAGHDAD – The area is known as “Shanty Town” to the Multi-National Division – Baghdad Soldiers who patrol the streets there. It is a poor section of Sadr City where the houses are flimsy structures of brick and mud, where sewage runs through the street and trash is piled along the road. But children and their families overlook the state of their condition when 1st Lt. Martin Saurez’ platoon comes for a visit.
“It’s not really the prettiest area, but there are people living there so we try to help them out,” said Saurez, a platoon leader, for Company A, 1st Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division.
On this day, Saurez and his platoon are handing out soccer balls, a cherished commodity to any Iraqi child, especially the impoverished children of “Shanty Town.”
Saurez’ unit, based out of Baumholder, Germany, currently attached to 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, is responsible for security, government and economic development of the southern Sadr City district of Baghdad.
“There’s not many opportunities in the area. Many of them are workers in the industrial park. They get paid two to three dollars a week – if that,” said Saurez, a native of Fort Lauderdale. ” Every once in a while, we’ll go in there and drop off food, a lot of food, a lot of water, some supplies and soccer balls for the kids.
“It’s like a big mob, but a good mob, a welcome mob, they like us there,” said Saurez.
Spc. Chris Jackson, a native of Washington, leaves the MRAP carrying a large black trash bag containing soccer balls, and the neighborhood children begin to gather. They remember Jackson as a barer of gifts, but they just aren’t sure what they have this time.
“Every single time we distribute soccer balls, it’s … it’s kind of like a big mosh pit. It’s a big rush to grab them,” said Saurez.
As Jackson takes the soccer balls from the bag, the children grow aggressive and charge to get their own ball. Some tried to tear the balls right from Jackson’s hands.
“I had them under control,” said Jackson, an infantryman in the platoon. “They just get excited, that’s all.”
Some children try to reach into the trash bag to grab the soccer balls, but Jackson stops them as a father smiles. He reprimands the teenagers and older children who try to take the balls away from the younger ones.
“You come with a box of soccer balls and candy. It’s guaranteed something; somebody is going to go wild,” Jackson said.
Jackson recently had two daughters of his own pass away.
“These kids sort of touch that spot. It’s sort of exciting. When kids smile, I smile back and they laugh and they’re all fun,” he said.
On other visits to the area, Jackson is on security and he doesn’t get to interact with the children.
“When they told us we could play with the kids, it’s like going back home,” Jackson said. “These kids, I don’t know … I just like them.”
“The kids like it when the American Army comes into their neighborhood to give the soccer balls, and they feel very happy,” said Moshtak Alaebe, a parent of some of the children. “I feel very good when I see my kids playing with the soccer balls.”
When the soccer balls ran out, Jackson and his fellow Soldiers bring out a case of cookies, and those go quickly.
“Considering their living conditions, I wish I could do more than hand out soccer balls,” said Sgt. John Halpin, a TF 1-6 Soldier and a native of Atlanta.
With the cookies gone, some children leave while others follow Jackson down the street to see two other young Iraqi boys. Jackson high-fives the kids and they pose for pictures before he passes out Gatorade and water.
“Chocolate, chocolate,” shouts some of the children. Jackson smiles and pulls some chocolate candies out of his cargo pocket as a parting gift.
“These kids are the future of Sadr City … of Iraq,” said Jackson. “I don’t have any doubt in my mind that Iraq is going to do just fine years down the line. It’s going to be very ugly to get there, but that’s why we’re here”
By Sgt. Jerry Saslav