AL ANBAR PROVINCE, Iraq --
For seven months, Marine Wing Support Squadron 274’s security battalion has patrolled the desert outside the gates of Al Asad Air Base 24 hours a day.
While patrolling the area, the Marines of the security battalion do more than look for suspicious activity. They go out of their way to interact with the locals and conduct missions that provide the air base’s Iraqi neighbors with essential services and a jumpstart on developing infrastructure.
Interactions with the Iraqis vary from casual conversations to push-up challenges to playing with bubbles. The actions of the Marines go a long way toward building relationships among the local population. These relationships are essential to the primary purpose of the security patrols – gaining information critical to maintaining security for the air base and the local Iraqis.
The Marines spend time getting to know the locals they meet by inquiring about their culture and way of life, leaving the Iraqis with a sense of safety and friendship when they see the Marines, explained Sgt. Karter Elliott, a patrol leader with the squadron which falls under Marine Wing Support Group 37, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward).
Through interpreters, Marines ask simple questions of the farmers and villagers they meet.
Interpreters are essential while on the patrols, according to Cpl. Charles Faust, a patrol navigator. “Sometimes when we don’t have one, we have to use hand gestures making it hard to have a humble conversation without confusion,” he said.
The humble, hand-gestured conversations are often coupled with magic tricks, boxes of soccer balls and the occasional bout of arm wrestling, but not all relationship-building efforts are fun and games.
During a late-August mission to the small villages of Harwan and Sahl, corpsman and doctors from the squadron provided essential, basic medical care to community members.
“The people are typically farmers and sheep herders,” said Staff Sgt. James Altman, the Headquarters and Service Company training staff noncommissioned officer in charge. “They do not have ready access to medical facilities and rarely see doctors for care except when provided by the Marines and sailors of MWSS-274.”
During the visit, corpsmen distributed vitamins and performed cursory health exams. Squadron doctors evaluated medical conditions to identify any potentially high-risk situations that could require treatment at a medical facility.
In addition to providing essential medical services, the squadron has coordinated with stateside organizations to support “Operation Backpack: Kids helping Kids.” The program puts school supplies in the hands of Iraqi children. Through the coordination of Navy chaplain, Lt. Cmdr. Robert Vance, and donations from Iverson Elementary School in Las Vegas and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Wilmington, N.C., more than 360 backpacks with school supplies have been handed out to Iraqi children living near the air base.
“They are obviously less fortunate than us,” said Elliott. “I feel bad for the kids because they live a rough life and anything we give them is worth it.”
The security patrols have also presented the Marines of the squadron with opportunities to help the Iraqis of nearby villages build a more solid infrastructure. The Marines have assisted in refurbishing buildings, re-establishing running water and bringing electricity back on line, according to Sgt. Andres Duran, a patrol leader with the squadron.
“At this point in Iraq we are all about helping out in any way we can,” said Vance. “These types of humanitarian missions build morale and trust with the people and help them get on their feet.”