FALLUJAH, Iraq --
Across the street, from where the Marines watched, an all-girl school buzzed with life as the bell rang, signaling the end to another school day. The children swarmed out into the street making their way home with an all-too-familiar expression of satisfaction with being done with classes for the day.
Children roamed the streets of the Andaloos district of Fallujah as 28-year-old Sgt. Ysac M. Perez, a squad leader with Company K, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 6, led his Marines out on patrol.
The children pleaded for the candy or soccer balls the Marines hand out from time to time.
“The kids can be a little annoying at times,” said 19-year-old, Phoenix native Pfc. David K. Tietje. “But when they ask for ‘choco-latte’ or candy it’s kind of a good thing. They’re the next generation of Iraqis. If we make a good impression on them, when they grow up, it’s going to change this country overall or at least this city.”
Other than the pleas for the usual handouts, the Marines started hearing a more modest request from the children. Some were simply asking for pens, pencils or even a single sheet of paper.
“After being here a month and a half, I’ve noticed that a lot more kids are going to school now,” said Perez. “They’re really crazy about pencils, rulers, erasers, sharpeners and stuff like that.”
The Andaloos District encompasses the majority of the city’s schools, but not all of the schools have opened. Because of that, some kids aren’t attending school, leaving them wandering the streets or working odd jobs if the work can be found.
While out on patrol the Marines stopped in at various homes. Getting to know the families in the neighborhood is part of the security measures Marines are taking to help ensure safety, Perez said.
“Anytime we go into a house a second time, and we know there are kids there, we always bring note pads, pencils and stuff like that to encourage them to go to school and study,” said the Whittier, Calif., native.
As soon as the children saw the Marines, word spread. In time, children arrive by the dozen.
“You get swarmed by children an awful lot,” said 2nd Lt. Christopher K. Caldwell, the platoon commander for 4th platoon. “The way me and my Marines see it is that when you have a lot of people and children around you, you’re pretty safe.”
Caldwell was referring to how attacks on the civilian population in the city have become nonexistent at this point in the fight, and if the people are out it’s because they know it’s safe to do so.
Construction is booming here, businesses have reopened, people have returned to the city and now children have turned to asking for school supplies rather than candy or toys.
Raising the spirits of the Iraqi children is enabling the Marines to feel a sense of accomplishment at times, said Caldwell. The instant gratification they see in the children’s faces is an immediate response to the job they’re doing, whereas everything else in a complicated counterinsurgency battle requires a lot of time and patience before results can be seen.
“It’s always good to see children,” said Caldwell. “You always get the best feedback … With a child, you go out and see them, you talk with them, and you can give them some candy and hand out a football. You can see the immediate results because the kid didn’t have anything when you got there.”
Perez said he felt like his Marines have become a part of the neighborhood, for which they have spent so much time maintaining security.
“A lot of the people whose homes we’ve been to accept us in,” he said. “We go in some houses where they offer us tea or hookah, so it is almost like, I don’t want to say they see us as a neighbor coming over, but that’s what it feels like at times.”
Perez went on to describe the level of familiarity the local residents have come to with the Marines.
“There are people here that know us by name,” said Perez. “Little kids always ask our names, so there are times we go through the streets and kids are calling us out by our names.”
Many of the Marines with Co. K are veterans of the war in Iraq and have had to overcome the combat mentality to adjust to a friendlier environment, said Perez.
“Myself and a lot of my senior Marines were here during (2004) and we came here with the killing and surviving mindset,” said Perez. “Now here we are passing out pencils and paper and trying to get to know the families. We’re trying to help them with all their problems instead of destroying things like we were before.”