By Army Staff Sgt. Matt Meadows
American Forces Press Service
Dec. 1, 2008 - A task force of National Guard soldiers has spent nearly $450,000 during the past three months to improve living conditions for residents of eastern Baghdad's Rusafa district. Eight Multinational Division Baghdad soldiers from the Mississippi National Guard's 890th Engineer Battalion, 926th Engineer Brigade, make up Task Force Gold Spike. The soldiers arrived in Baghdad in early September with a $2.5 million budget and a mandate to "make Rusafa better."
To date, higher headquarters has approved eight of Task Force Gold Spike's 16 planned projects, and the task force has helped to employ about 160 Rusafa-area residents through three contractors.
"Ideally, what we have been looking at is standard-of-living improvement projects [such as] trash removal, sewage issues, solar light issues [and] micro-power generators, ... basically trying to improve the quality of life in Rusafa," said Army Capt. Richard Luckett, a Hattiesburg, Miss., native and Task Force Gold Spike project manager. "Trash and sewage we've already done."
Luckett said the completed sewer and trash clean-up projects are especially important to him.
"I've got small children, and when you see little bitties running around in raw sewage and through trash and everything else, it just breaks your heart," he said. "So, I have made it my personal mission that if I can make it a little bit better for those little bitties, then I know I've done something worthwhile, and I can go home and be proud of my work."
In another project, workers will install solar lights in areas of high commerce, so businesses can stay open later and security will be better as vendors close their shops at night, Luckett said. Another project in the works involves structural and visual improvements to buildings. Many multilevel buildings in Rusafa have columns that support upper floors.
"They have been just riddled with bullet holes and things," Luckett explained. "So to improve the aesthetics to help improve the general feel about an area, we have a contract which will go out and actually fix the columns and paint them to Iraqi standards."
Army Command Sgt. Maj. Christopher Greca, the senior enlisted leader for the 10th Mountain Division's 4th Brigade Combat Team, who hails from Grayslake, Ill., called Task Force Gold Spike a phenomenal asset to the Patriot Brigade. He said other soldiers who work in the operating environment are not necessarily subject-matter experts when it comes to things like trash and sewage, so having engineers looking at these issues from their perspective achieves better results.
"They are making improvements that otherwise would be delayed -- maybe for weeks, maybe for months, maybe for years," he said. "With those assets, and with those individuals coming in here and tackling those issues and those problems head-on, it's improving the quality of life for the residents down there in Rusafa, and it's making a world of difference for the people here in Iraq and Baghdad."
The very nature of Task Force Gold Spike's structure shapes the types of projects they undertake, Luckett said. His unit is a time-oriented task force, he explained, meaning it has a limited amount of time – six months, in this case -- to complete all of its missions. Therefore, he said, the soldiers don't approach projects from a long-term perspective.
Funding for the task force's projects comes from the Commanders' Emergency Response Program, which establishes strict guidelines regarding how the funds can be spent, he added.
Task Force Gold Spike does not operate independently when selecting projects to improve living conditions in Rusafa. In fact, local officials determine many of the missions, the captain said.
"We are working hand in hand with [district officials] and the mayor's office, because we don't want to do anything that they don't want us to do, and we are hoping to improve the general feel about an area to increase trade to bring people back into the area," Luckett said. "Everything that we have done has been completely what they want us to do."
Luckett said Task Force Gold Spike leaders attend weekly district council meetings, during which representatives from Rusafa neighborhoods discuss local issues and problems. Task force members then draft detailed descriptions of the necessary work and take their CERP-fund proposals for fixing the problems to the local leaders who raised the concerns, Luckett explained.
"After we attend a meeting and individuals bring us issues, we go out into those areas and validate that [they exist]," he said. The soldiers take pictures and discuss the issues with local citizens, he added.
Conducting such reconnaissance is how Task Force Gold Spike identified the cyclic problem of Rusafa residents not having regular trash pickup services, the captain said. Because trash would end up in the sewers and the sewage would back up, he said, the task force had to address trash and sewage issues simultaneously.
Luckett said he has noticed a slow increase in the standard of living. Contractors the task force hires send him pictures every day that show where they are, what they are doing and the results of their hard work, he said.
Completed projects give the soldiers a feeling of accomplishment and a perspective on what is important in life, he added.
"If we can make things a little bit better for just a handful of people, then we've done a good thing," Luckett said. "It's not about how much money you have in your pocket or how many medals you've got on your chest, it's about how you feel about yourself inside."
(Army Staff Sgt. Matt Meadows serves in Multinational Division Baghdad with the 10th Mountain Division's 4th Brigade Combat Team Public Affairs Office.)