By Army Sgt. Jerry Saslav
Special to American Forces Press Service
Feb. 5, 2009 - Some entered Sadr City District Advisory Council compound here in small groups Feb. 4, and others came alone. They were a diverse group -- former military men injured while fighting insurgents, victims of Saddam Hussein's regime, the very old and the very young. Their disabilities linked them to a common goal, the hope of receiving one of the 60 free wheelchairs being given out by Brad Blauser, founder of WheelchairsforIraqikids.com.
Along with Army Capt. (Dr.) Scot Tebo, brigade surgeon in Multinational Division Baghdad for the 4th Infantry Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team, and Ed Burkhart, a San Angelo, Texas, contractor working in Iraq, Blauser said he hopes to deliver more than 300 wheelchairs in the near future.
WheelchairsforIraqiKids.com started in Mosul in 2005 when Blauser, then a civilian contractor who also was working with people in the United States to provide care packages, talked to the local U.S. Army surgeon.
"I asked him if there was anything he needed," Blauser, a native of Dallas, said. "He immediately came back and said [he needed] children's wheelchairs. It stunned me for a moment, because No. 1, these are very expensive, and No. 2, he knew immediately what he needed."
When the doctor conducted missions to treat the local populace, families would bring their children, begging for help. Unfortunately, most of the time there was nothing he could do, and most of the families were too poor to afford a wheelchair.
Blauser asked the doctor if he realized the $2,000 to $3,000 price tag each wheelchair came with.
"I know," the doctor said. "But you asked."
Blauser e-mailed the request to the United States, and within 30 days, 31 wheelchairs arrived in Mosul; this caused Blauser to begin the charity.
The wheelchair, designed by a company in Bozeman, Mont., specifically for rough terrain, started with a donated design from college engineering students. Each chair costs about $350 and is funded entirely through donations. The U.S. government ships the wheelchairs to Blauser overseas for free. Blauser and his volunteer team expect to hand out more than 120 wheelchairs at the Sadr City District Advisory Council compound, and another 200 are expected to arrive in the next few weeks.
There had been plans to open a factory in Iraq to produce the wheelchairs, through funding provided by private donations and the government of Iraq, but the recent drop in oil prices and the worldwide economic slump caused the project to be cancelled, Blauser said.
Abdul Saad, a 70-year-old Sadr City resident, is typical of the people who came seeking a wheelchair. Complications from diabetes caused the amputation of one of his legs.
"Thank you to the Americans for giving me this wheelchair," he said. "I don't have money to buy this chair."
Jawad Kadam lost his left leg when Saddam Hussein's forces crushed an uprising by Sadr City residents. Using a pair of crutches to get around, he supports himself by selling candy, drinks and cigarettes from a small shop in Sadr City. This is his first wheelchair.
"I can walk with this. It hurt my body to walk with these," he said, pointing to his crutches.
While on a mission with coalition forces, Alaoe Aned Thane, an Iraqi army sergeant, lost his leg when he was wounded by insurgents firing a heavy machine gun. With a wife and four children to support, Thane could not afford to buy a wheelchair.
"I am happy now," he said. "I can walk."
A group of Multinational Division Baghdad soldiers saw 9-year-old Hamza Kder walking in the street on his crutches with his aunt, who watches over Hamza while his mother works. His father is dead. The soldiers sent them to the compound for a wheelchair.
"I like it," Hamza said. "The chair helps me to move and maybe play with the [other] kids."
Many people in Sadr City need assistance, but on this day, the 60 wheelchairs were gone in less than three hours.
"The people of Baghdad and Iraq ... have suffered a great number of injuries to their populace which cause a lot of them not being able to walk," Tebo, a native of Colorado Springs, Colo., said. "Because of all the damage to the infrastructure, to the economics [and] to the production capability ... they really don't have the capability to produce a lot of wheelchairs, canes, crutches."
(Army Sgt. Jerry Saslav serves in Multinational Division Baghdad with the 4th Infantry Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team public affairs office.)