By Sgt. Mike Pryor, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service
Oct. 22, 2007 - The high point of 1st Lt. William Bass' deployment to Iraq so far wasn't a raid or some other combat operation; it was the sight of two little girls playing on a brand new swing set. It was an important moment for Bass, because it represented the payoff for three months of hard work to improve conditions at the Al Zuhor Girl's Orphanage in northern Baghdad's Adhamiyah district.
"Seeing that, that was all the gratification I needed right there. It felt really good," Bass said.
Not long ago, the orphanage was falling into disrepair from lack of maintenance, and the girls spent their days shuttered inside with no place to play. But thanks to Bass, a fire support officer with Troop C, 3rd "Saber" Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment, the Al Zuhor has undergone a $100,000 facelift, turning it into a state-of-the-art facility.
"With these kinds of projects, you get to make a lasting impact," said Bass, a Washington, D.C., native.
The orphanage is home to more than 50 girls between the ages of 8 and 16. There is also a separate facility for special-needs children on the same property. Many of the children at the orphanage lost their parents due to the murders, bombings, and other violence that has plagued Baghdad. Others were orphaned by disease or simply because their parents could no longer take care of them, Bass said.
Now, the orphanage is their home, with staff filling the role of surrogate parents. The director of the facility, Suda Juwad al-Khafage, tries to give the children a normal life despite their circumstances. The importance of education is stressed, and all the children attend local schools. Even girls at the facility who reach adulthood are allowed to remain at the orphanage and attend college if they maintain good behavior, Suda said.
But despite the hard work of the staff, the orphanage lacked funding to keep the grounds and building in good condition. When Bass first visited the facility on a routine patrol in July, he noticed the building was falling apart and there was a barren, trash-filled lot instead of a playground. Talking with Suda, he found that the problems stretched to include even routine matters as preparing dinner for the children. Suda told him she was having difficulty bringing food in after curfew hours.
The next day, Bass returned with bags of rice, beans, sugar, salt and other staples for the staff to prepare meals with. Over the next weeks and months, his involvement grew to the point where he was planning a complete renovation of the facility. Soon, Bass was up to his neck in paperwork as he dealt with Iraqi government officials, contractors, and the military appropriations process to find money for the project.
"He really just took the ball and ran with it," said Bass' troop commander, Army Capt. Ian Claxton from Mount Airy, N.C. "He's very passionate about it."
Bass' persistence paid off, and when the renovation was completed earlier this month, the orphanage had a new water irrigation system, a new paint job, a new electrical system, new playground equipment, improved plumbing, and a total facelift to the grounds.
Today, children scamper amid mosaic-tiled walkways, bright murals, new playground equipment, manicured lawns, and street lights that let them play at night. The difference from three months ago is like night and day, Bass said.
When Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, Multinational Corps Iraq commander, visited Adhamiyah on Oct. 16, the orphanage was one of the sites he was most impressed with. And when Odierno met with Suda to congratulate her, she gave much of the credit for the state of the facility to Bass.
Getting involved to help the less fortunate is nothing new for Bass. He said he has always been involved in volunteer work. Growing up in Washington, he used to spend Thanksgiving volunteering at a soup kitchen and Christmas handing out gifts to patients in a cancer ward. "Humanitarian aid work has always been a huge part of my life," he said.
So when Bass first saw the state the orphanage was in three months ago, his reaction was immediate. "When I went down there and saw that those kids were hurting, I wasn't thinking, 'Hey, let me do something to get a good story.' It was, 'Let me do this because they need help,'" Bass said.
In the end, Bass said he just hopes his efforts will make a positive difference in the children's lives. "Kids are like a blank canvas," he said. "Suda is always telling them, 'You can accomplish anything.' No matter where they came from, the interactions they have at the orphanage are going to shape and groom them into the person they are going to become," he said.
"That impact is everlasting, and hopefully these kids will be the future leaders of this country," Bass said.
(Army Sgt. Mike Pryor is assigned to 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division Public Affairs.)