FORWARD OPERATING BASE KALSU, Iraq -- As the summer winds down, the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit's Back-to-School Campaign is revving up, giving the Marines a vehicle to make a difference in the lives of Iraq's children, one classroom at a time.
This week, the Marines of MEU Service Support Group 24 turned their attention to a school in one of the surrounding communities. The school was in urgent need of maintenance before children could return for classes in October.
It is one of a number of area schools that the Marines, drawing on support from the U.S. Agency for International Development, will restore in the coming weeks. The idea is to make a quick impact -- and a lasting impression.
"This gives us a tie with the locals and reassures them we're here to help," said 1st Lt. Keith B. Dillard, the MEU Service Support Group 24 logistics officer from Mt. Vernon, N.Y.
More than $45,000 has been presented to the school, with more on the way. To date, the money has gone towards improvements such as new floor tiles, electricity, paint, bathrooms, plumbing and air conditioning units for the facility. Bookshelves have also been built and donated by MSSG-24 Marines.
These efforts have positively affected the treatment of the Marines in the Iraqi community. Though their lives are always in danger when traveling to neighboring areas, helping the local Iraqis continues to be an important mission.
"In the recent past, we've gotten into firefights on our way back," stated Capt. Thomas Gilley, a native of Glen Burnie, Md., and operations officer for MSSG-24.
"When we first started going out there, the atmosphere was very poor," added Dillard. "It's been getting better since they realized we're here to help."
An additional difficulty arose when the contractor heading the project backed out one day before restoration was scheduled to begin.
"Contractors were afraid to travel here because they felt threatened," said Dillard. "I just hope, in the end, the children and families in the area have a good school system."
Future plans for the school include taking class photos, coordinating a soccer tournament, and paving the road leading to the school. The Marines are also working with U.S. AID to replace all the desks, provide educational decorations, and supply the school with computers.
The opening day for the school is Oct. 2, and it will be capable of educating over 700 students.
The 24th MEU has received more than 4,000 pencils, notebooks and rulers from family and friends of the MEU. Additionally, a civil affairs team acquired 5,000 backpacks to be given to the students. After the schools doors open for fall classes, the Marines will return and present each child a backpack filled with the donated goods.
"The long-term goal is focused on the children of Iraq," Gilley said. "Their education will greatly impact the future of Iraq, as they grow up remembering that Americans were here to do the right thing."