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October 12, 2006

Rotary in Action.

In this case, literally. My Rotary Club and our District support this effort. In fact, our District (starting first with our club two years ago) has been supporting efforts to help Iraqi children for over two years, via deployed members or their offspring serving in the Box.

Roger is a Kansas National Guardsman who runs the Joint Visitors Bureau (JVB), which is a high-risk job, professionally - he handles all the visiting dignitaries. And in Baghdad, it can also be high-risk personally.

Letter from Rotarian Roger Aeschliman from the Topeka Downtown Club and currently stationed in Iraq

Howdy everyone, 1 October 2006

Several times this year everything canceled right out from underneath us. Such too this week. There were significant missions scheduled and we looked to be nearly maxed out. Then one by one they all disappeared. We never know beforehand why these lulls occur but afterwards sometimes learn. Once was when Zarqawi got whacked; once when all the senior commanders demanded some relief from visitors so they could fight the war; another time was the seating of the new government ministers. Wonder what this one will turn out to be?

For the nonce, very slow for me and most of the JVB, though as predicted last week, Muslims are killing Muslims more now during their holy Ramadan than prior.

Much of my spare time this week was absorbed by the mission planning and delivery of all your boxes of health, hygiene and first aid supplies, as well as toys and soccer balls, to the town of Makasib (my desk area is tidy again after about a month of piled up boxes).

Charlie Company, one of our Wichita-based units, owns the territory outside of Camp Slayer, including the town of Makasib. I coordinated with Captain Rob Stone to insert our armored utility truck into one of his combat patrols into the town. Here at the JVB we loaded all the boxes Wednesday evening, early Thursday picked up an Army Public Affairs Reporter, then headed to the Royal Palace Complex to meet CPT Stone. Broke fast in yet another wonderful mess hall in yet another impressive palace, then received the patrol briefing and rolled out of the gates into the farmlands south of the Baghdad International Airport.

The convoy was four M-1114 gun trucks (formerly known as Hummers, now heavily armored and armed) and the armored truck (replacing all the old 2 ½ ton trucks that served the army since World War II). We wheeled by the farms and occasionally the .50 caliber machine gunners would throw a soccer ball to the children that magically cluster along the roadways. There must be some kind of ESP linking all these kids as they popped up out of nowhere to line the way ahead of us. The roads ranged from a few decent blacktops down to narrow, rutted, dike-top footpaths and we wove back and forth over an unpredictable route. This area is very calm, mostly poor Sunni farmers and not the site of any sectarian violence. Nevertheless Charlie Company troops discovered roadside bombs over past months, had a few blow up near patrols and encountered random small arms fire. This trip was blissfully uneventful other than kids fighting over soccer balls.

We made it unscathed to Makasib rolling straight into the middle of town, stopping right in front of the clinic. We dismounted just in time to see the local butcher cut the head off a living goat. By the time we were all done the goat was skinned, quartered and hanging on hooks for sale.

As foreshadowed by CPT Stone we were immediately surrounded by children – truly hundreds. They all wanted something: “hey mister. Gimme …” a pen, rank insignia, a lighter, money, whatever. Tugging at sleeves and trousers. You can’t let them swarm you as they will pick your pockets. So smile, smile, tousle hair, pat cheeks and say “La! La!” No, No.

The village headman (not actually a tribal sheik or the official mayor but nevertheless accepted as in charge by the locals) met us at the clinic and we chatted and toured. There are a dozen rooms in the building and half of them are empty. The rest have some hodge-podge of castoff furnishings and nothing else. A male and a female doctor were on hand to receive the boxes. After further discussion we allowed the headman and the doctors to decide what to do with the whole shebang. Their decision? Store everything in the clinic where it would be safe from pilfering. The people would have extra incentive to go to the clinic where they could leave with some item of health or hygiene after a checkup or treatment. The docs would also have toys to give away to their frightened young patients. The headman retains the right to distribute things amongst the populace as he sees fit.

This is a win/win/win outcome for us. Your Kansas soldiers (AND YOU!) got credit for bringing necessary and helpful things they could not otherwise afford, the clinic and the ministry of health get credit for being effective and the headman gets to exercise leadership and largess bolstering his position and maintaining tribal norms.

We talked at length about Topeka and that these gifts were from real people who care, not a governmental program. We tried to explain Rotary but the translator gave up saying that the idea of a large group of people sitting down together to do good works for others without desire for recognition or reward was incomprehensible in this culture. I found that fascinating yet hope he is wrong.

They know we will be back in a few weeks to bring the 62 boxes of medical clinic supplies and equipment collected by Topeka’s four Rotary Clubs, spearheaded by my dear friend Maria Wilson. And they are grateful. Yet they also have a sense of doubt about our motives. Why would these people from Topeka and Texas and Washington State (some of whom I don’t even know) care about Makasib? In Islam giving to the poor is required in order to go to heaven. You MUST do it; it is a fundamental pillar of the faith. So giving is not a choice made selflessly; there is a quid pro quo. This is a cultural difference that must be overcome by them as they seek to develop a civil society rather than the hunker down and avoid pain dictatorship society they have known for 3,000 years.

Makasib boxes from Rotarians Joe McFarland x 3, Anita Wolgast, and Frank Memmo (and Sandra). 112 boxes for Makasib. That’s probably it except for the 62 full of clinic supplies coming from Rotary and the many donors throughout Topeka. Thanks!

American by birth. Soldier by choice. Volunteer by God!

Roger T. Aeschliman
Major, Armor
Deputy Commander, First Kansas Volunteers