By Army Sgt. David Turner
Special to American Forces Press Service
May 15, 2008 - A program aimed at teaching Iraqi citizens valuable career skills, with the added benefit of rebuilding their community, graduated its first class of students May 8 in a ceremony at Patrol Base Stone in Hawr Rajab, south of Baghdad. The 42 graduates, many of whom had been part of the "Sons of Iraq" group that helps in the local security effort, spent the past three months learning plumbing, electrical and construction skills at the "Village of Hope" training facility. They will continue their training outside the classroom by renovating structures in the area.
Al-Qaida in Iraq devastated Hawr Rajab last year, said town council chairman Sheikh Ali Majid, who attended the graduation ceremony. Terrorists burned houses, stole goods, and used many structures for storing weapons and building bombs, he said. Now that violence has subsided in the area, its residents can move on.
"The first thing we need to do is rebuild our homes," Majid said.
As part of a year-long program, airmen of 557th Expeditionary Red Horse Squadron, working with soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division's 6th Squadron, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, will continue their work with students by providing on-site supervision of the reconstruction efforts.
"The real concentrated effort is to make sure the students, after their 90 days of academic and technical training, continue to develop their skill sets so they become true craftsmen," Air Force liaison Senior Master Sgt. Casey Wieland said.
The graduates will achieve this by renovating damaged houses in Hawr Rajab selected by the town council, Wieland said. Then they will progress to commercial and industrial projects, developing a wider range of practical skills and knowledge.
Community rebuilding will reinforce the training they've received at the Village of Hope, training superintendent Air Force Master Sgt. Steven Brooks said.
"Hopefully, by the time they get to that point, the renovations will have trained them to the level we need them to be, so they can go out and work on their own," Brooks said.
Part of the continuing program is to train students to be not only tradesmen, but supervisors as well, Brooks said. "Our guys will actually be out there with them initially supervising and still training, but eventually these guys will be doing it themselves," he said.
Air Force Capt. Michael Askegren, Village of Hope site commander, encouraged the graduates to continue their training as they work in the community.
"You have a long way to go," he told the graduates. "I want to challenge you to stay with the program. When you're done rebuilding Hawr Rajab, you'll feel a great sense of pride in your community."
Majid congratulated the students and said he looks forward to what they will accomplish next.
"Now they can rebuild Hawr Rajab on their own. They won't need help from someone else," he said.
Three more classes of 50 students each are scheduled to follow over the next year.
(Army Sgt. David Turner of the 3rd Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team serves in the Multinational Division Center Public Affairs Office.)