By Army Sgt. Jason Stadel
Special to American Forces Press Service
April 7, 2008 - When an Air Force engineer first stepped foot in Hawr Rajab, it was an al-Qaida in Iraq safe haven. The thought that came to mind was a scene from an old western movie. "Most of the businesses were shuttered, and the main road was more comparable to the O.K. Corral," said Capt. Josh Aldred, a native of Flagstaff, Ariz., recalling his December arrival.
Four months later, the al-Qaida operatives are gone, and Aldred sees a community flourishing with business and hope.
Aldred was the primary instructor at the Village of Hope vocational school on the grounds of Patrol Base Stone in Hawr Rajab. He ended his tour in Iraq on April 3 and turned the project over to another Air Force captain.
With his 30-man team of engineer airmen from 557th Expeditionary Red Horse Squadron, Aldred taught the Village of Hope students the basics of construction, plumbing, electricity, masonry and well drilling. The overall goal is to teach residents of Hawr Rajab the skills they need to rebuild their war-torn community.
"The experience has been great, and the students have been really receptive to learning new ideas and methods of construction," he said. "This mission has been a big experiment for the Air Force and military engineers in general."
The airmen forged friendships with most of the 50 current students, all of whom are from Hawr Rajab. When they found out Aldred was returning to Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., they wrote him and his troops a letter of appreciation.
"In the past, we had different feelings and a kind of misunderstanding towards the American people," read the letter signed by the students. "After being close to you, we found out that we are almost the same. We both love and care and sacrifice for other people. This removed the fears we had before, and now we have become very good friends."
The letter reinforced what Aldred was already thinking: the Village of Hope experiment is working.
"In my mind, the Village of Hope concept should be used in other locations throughout Iraq," he said. The program helps local people improve their community, and it gives military-aged males another option to provide for their families, "instead of turning to those who would do us harm," the captain added.
Members of the Village of Hope class share Aldred's sentiments. They said they now see Americans as people wanting to make Iraq better for the Iraqi people, not as an occupying force.
"We will spread all of your nice words ... to keep the good memories in our mind which changed our life and how we felt about coalition forces," the letter said.
When the current students graduate, they will join the Iraqi work force as skilled tradesmen working to improve their community.
"The effects of the Village of Hope include area beautification, new construction -- which means more jobs -- and tons of litter and rubble removed from the side of the road," Aldred said.
The captain added that he and his fellow airmen -- along with their Troop A, 6th Squadron, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division counterparts, who provide security and transportation to the Village of Hope -- can take pride in their endeavor.
"It feels good to have made a difference, and none of this would have been possible without a team effort from the Army and Air Force," he said.
As the students prepared to continue their studies with new instructors, they wished Aldred and his crew well and hoped the airmen would remember their positive experience working in Hawr Rajab.
"We hope that you have a good depiction of Iraq in your mind," said the letter. "Tell your people and families about us when you arrive to the United States. Tell them about our good friendship and experience we have had together."
Current Village of Hope students are scheduled to graduate in late May or early June. Three more classes are scheduled. When all four classes are complete, 200 Hawr Rajab residents will have graduated from the vocational school.
(Army Sgt. Jason Stadel serves with the 3rd Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team.)