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Summer 2011

Not the War Umesh Sharma Expected

Construction of Al Bessil School

This is the story of a Harvard graduate who has taken the road less traveled. I came to the United States six years ago from Rajasthan, India, to attend Harvard. After obtaining my master’s in the International Education Policy Program, I decided not to return to India. I became a teacher in Washington, D.C. Then, in February 2009, the U.S. Army started a new program, MAVNI: Military Accession Vital to National Interest. I was able to join the Army despite being a legal immigrant and not having U.S. citizenship or permanent residency.

My father had served for 16 years in the Indian infantry before he started a K–12 school for his children and other kids. I decided to follow in his footsteps. In the summer of 2009, I left the comfort of my job as a teacher and joined the U.S. Army. Considering my qualifications, I could perhaps have gotten any job in the military, but I have always had a drive to push myself physically. I have competed in marathons, 10K races, and triathlons, so the demands of being a grunt, and family tradition, compelled me to join the infantry. It just seemed like a perfect fit. However, despite my desire to be just an infantryman, upon arrival to my unit in Hawaii, my superiors learned about my educational background and assigned me to a special, unconventional position to assist the commander with additional burdens of an “advise, train, and assist” mission.

Our unit deployed to Iraq on the fourth of July 2010. A few months after our arrival in the Kirkuk province, combat operations (Operation Iraqi Freedom) officially ended. Operation New Dawn began on September 1 with the “advise, train, and assist” mission. Essentially, we stopped actively targeting and pursuing the enemy and started training Iraqi Security Forces. We also assisted local government officials by helping them rebuild infrastructure that had greatly suffered over the past seven years.

This was not the mission I had expected when I first joined the Army.

Reality When we first arrived in July to our small base, which we shared with an Iraqi Army battalion, it was more than 130 degrees Fahrenheit. The morning that I write this — January 4, 2011, the halfway point in our one-year tour — it’s 32 degrees. We still wear the same uniform with the obligatory 40-pound body armor. It used to be a burden in the unbearable heat, but now it feels more comfortable.

Many of us expected intense fighting like we had seen in the movies or heard from fellow soldiers with previous deployments under their belts. However, insurgent attacks against U.S. forces have become infrequent. So far, our Warrior brigade has lost five soldiers (KIA: killed in action) in the past six months, with many others wounded in action. Thankfully no one in my company, Reaper, has sustained serious injuries despite several close calls.

Hearts and Minds

Children and soldiers near a mine-resistant, ambush-protected tank in Hawijah

The number of attacks had come down after U.S. forces introduced a new program in 2007 to win the hearts and minds of the people. The Commander’s Emergency Response Program allowed company commanders to identify areas in need of infrastructure improvement and work through the local government to hire local contractors.

Company Reaper is responsible for the predominantly agricultural region of Kirkuk. As is the case in many agrarian cultures around the world, formal education is greatly underappreciated. Many of the local schools are little more than multiroom mud huts while the larger schools from the Saddam-era are in total disrepair. Restoration and rebuilding schools has been our unit’s specific focus. This past October, the newly reconstructed Fedika Girls Elementary School reopened for the first time since a suicide bomber destroyed it during the tumultuous elections of 2005.

Besides overseeing the construction, we also provided school supplies — school bags, pencil boxes, and notebooks — for the Iraqi soldiers to distribute to the children. The little girls were thrilled with all the colorful bags they were getting but were very obedient in class. Afterwards they followed us around the hallway demanding that I, the designated Reaper photographer, take their pictures, which I did. Even the Iraqi grownups seemed to be caught up in the childish enthusiasm. It showed a more familial aspect of the Iraqi society: children and adults in a mellowed setting.

Our most recent reopening was in December, the Al Tafaul Elementary School, which was also destroyed in 2005 by suicide bombers attempting to disrupt and discredit the election. At the opening ceremony, the city mayor thanked us for “helping remove the face of war from our city.” Although I had previously worked with school children in the United States and India, the ability to facilitate the improvement of education in Iraq as a way to win the hearts and minds and promote freedom through education, as the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen once put it, has shown me how education can dramatically change the lives of not only the students, but of the entire society.

Soldiers and Schools I recently read an article in The New York Times by Nicholas Kristof (online, of course), in which he argued that it would be better for the United States to fund schools in Afghanistan and Iraq than to keep U.S. soldiers on the ground. My experiences have shown me otherwise.

Many U.S. and international organizations are involved in developmental work to help modernize Iraq and bring peace and stability in the region, with a modern education system being the cornerstone of a modern Iraq. However, security concerns keep most of them from frequently visiting the smaller and remote towns and villages needing the most attention. For instance, in my last six months here, I saw USAID only once visit the two school projects they funded here. We provided them security as they went about their project inspections.

Local government officials distribute backpacks

On the other hand, during the same time period, U.S. forces have funded $5 million of infrastructure in the district. We have visited our projects almost every week. We have a much better understanding of the local situation (political ambitions, tribal affiliations, corrupt officials, urgent local issues). We stay here in remote areas, close to the people, and meet them frequently, despite terror attacks on our convoys. Thus, U.S. forces are uniquely positioned to interact with and help the local populace on a regular basis, despite the terror attacks. Without proper security, schools cannot be built and students cannot study.

I cannot adequately describe the experience without mentioning our support for Al Anwar Widows and Orphans organization. This local NGO supports local families whose fathers have been killed during the war. Our unit funded the reconstruction of the organization’s headquarters building, which was previously an abandoned building next to the city council’s building. Despite being attacked on the way to its opening ceremony, our unit has continued providing sewing machines and other items that support vocational training to the widows. A few days after Christmas, I even played the role of Santa Claus when we distributed more than 500 bags of humanitarian aid including food, winter clothing, and blankets.

This is Operation New Dawn. This is not the war I signed up for, but it has made me realize that the “advise, train, and assist” mission is a way soldiers can establish long-term peace and fight terrorism, while also being educators of mankind and promoting modern democratic societies. Of course, we do need our weapons to protect ourselves and the society.

— Umesh Sharma, Ed.M.’05, is a specialist in the Alpha Company1-14 Infantry Battalion.