Marines bring smiles, relief, hope for future to refugees

17 Dec 2006 | Pfc. Timothy T. Parish

The candy coated grins on the children’s faces were matched only by the smiles of the Marines handing out the treats.

The 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) Marines supplying the dusty refugee camp outside Camp Korean Village, Iraq were greeted with glowing eyes and high-fives, and the sound of little feet dancing around the gift-bearers.

Each month since June 2005 the same scene occurs as a convoy of Marines and Sailors has left the wires of Camp Korean Village to travel a few kilometers down the road.  Their destination is a dusty outpost next to a gas station that houses 140 Sudanese refugees who have been displaced for over a decade.

These missions foster amicability and build bridges between Coalition Forces in Al Anbar Province and local nationals, according to Lt. Col Henry M. Hyams, Commanding Officer, Combat Logistics Battalion 15, 15th MEU (SOC).  “I think in the process of transitioning over to the Iraqi government and to the Iraqi Army forces, it’s an important part to show good will,” he said.

The 15th MEU (SOC) has taken on the mission of caring for the refugees.  The 15th MEU (SOC), in cooperation with relief organizations, supplies the refugees with pre-packaged meals and bottled water. 

Fifteen years ago, this group left the persecution of their homeland to find opportunity and stability in Iraq.  After coalition forces dislodged the regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the exiles once again found themselves the subject of harassment.

In May 2005, the refugees attempted to leave Iraq, hoping for a better life across the border in Jordan, according to Chief Warrant Officer John M. Wills, Civil Affairs team leader, detachment 4/2, 4th Civil Affairs Group.  “When they got to the border, the border was closed.  So, they were kind of stuck at that point,” Wills said.

The Iraqi Red Crescent relief organization led the group back to the area around Camp Korean Village and gave them a few comforts to get them started.

In June 2005, the operating forces at Camp Korean Village became aware of the refugees presence, and started to provide support to the group, according to Wills. 
Each command rotated through Camp Korean Village since the initial contact has continued to maintain relations with the refugees.  

Past commands from Camp Korean Village have also provided relief from the sometimes overbearing weather conditions in the form of cold-weather clothing and shelter tents.  The men, women, and children of the refugee group have used a little improvisation to better equip themselves in this barren desert, Wills said.  “They don’t waste anything,” Wills said.  “The boxes that we deliver their meals in become additional shelter for the refugees.”    

The 4th CAG, composed of reservists from Naval Annex, Anacostia, Va., arrived at Camp Korean Village in September 2006, and learned of the refugees shortly after. The initial visit to the refugee camp was a stark revelation to the Marines.  “Your heart goes out to the refugees, to see the conditions they’re living in,” Wills said.  “But at the same time, they’re a very peaceful, and almost content people, that just need help,” he continued. 

The work and charity displayed by the 15th MEU (SOC) Marines and Sailors assigned to Camp Korean Village, should not go unnoticed, Wills said. 

“Any Marine or Sailor that has taken part in providing this humanitarian aid to the refugees should deserve some type of recognition,” perhaps the Humanitarian Service Medal, he said.

The final decision on the future of the refugees is in the hands of the U.S. State Department and Department of Homeland Security, or counterparts in the U.K. or Canada.  Wills hopes the answer will come within a few months, he said.

“I would like to see the refugees relocated from their current location,” he said. “That would be a very good sense of accomplishment for all the efforts of my Marines and all the Marines of Task Force Rutbah and the 15th MEU, and previous Marines and Sailors that have supported the refugees,” he added.

The impact that the Marines and Sailors of the 15th MEU (SOC) made on the citizens of Al Anbar Province is likely to linger on in their hearts and minds, according to Sgt. Maj. Gonzalo A. Vasquez, sergeant major, Combat Logistics Battalion 15.  “The little kids receiving the candy, it only last half an hour in their mouths, but the impression lasts a long, long time,” Vasquez said

Marines from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) arrived in
Iraq four weeks ago and provide security to this region of the Al Anbar Province.