Getting Iraqis Back on Their Feet

Frank O'Farrell, a specialist with the U.S. Army Reserve's 411th Civil Affairs Battalion, has been stationed in Baghdad since March.

As a business manager in civilian life, Frank O'Farrell's skills are being put to ready use in helping to reconstruct Iraq, specifically overseeing much of the work at a compound housing displaced persons.

His tour of duty, originally scheduled to end in April, will be extended until October.

O'Farrell spoke with Register correspondent Joseph Pronechen on a Thanksgiving visit to his family in Niantic and Danbury, Conn.

How did you come to join the Army?

I had first enlisted in the Army at age 20, served, then opted out after about five years. I'm 32 now. My rejoining was related to Sept. 11 and all succeeding it. I wanted to do more than just put a bumper sticker on my car and wave a flag.

I don't regret the decision. As many negatives as it's brought being away, it's been a good decision. I'll do my job and make the time count as much as possible. I'll definitely make the most of the extra six months.

What are your duties in Baghdad?

I'm in charge of a project located in an old military prison complex, not the nicest of places. As soon as the regime collapsed, everyone there scattered. Now the people in there are mostly urban poor — squatters who found the place out of necessity. And others came who found out they didn't have to pay rent.

We have about 900 civilians in our compound now. It's named Hillsdale and next to the United Nations’ compound.

What happened when you arrived at the compound?

We got close to all the people there. We took lists of their names, the names of all the children in the family, where they were from, the schools they attended and their previous employment. We wanted to see if there was any way we could help them get work.

What did you do about the basic necessities after the war ended?

Our job as soldiers in a civil affairs battalion is to help the government — to have local elections, get the electricity, sewers and water going again. It's to get their people back on their feet.

That's why I came back. Civil affairs is the reason I'm back in the Army. [I was looking for] a unit with such a positive spin. Our job is reconstructing what was broken, bringing back a sense of normalcy and peace to the people affected.

Besides restoring basic necessities, how are you progressing in helping these people in your charge?

I look after my projects that are centered on these people and making life better for them. We're building an irrigation system so there's water for them to start planting. We're building a bakery so they can bake for themselves and also be generating some money for themselves by baking for others. They'll actually build, staff and run the bakery themselves.

We have a permanent medical facility in the compound [helped by funding from various international sources].

How do you find the attitude of the Iraqi people you see? Is it hostile?

Not all the people are hostile there. When we are driving in a convoy there — always in a minimum of two to three trucks — if you wave, everyone will wave back. If you don't wave, they don't either. For the most part, people are genuinely glad we're there.

There are 900 people in the compound, and I don't feel the slightest bit exposed or threatened. The people know us and know we're doing good things. They didn't see positive change right away. They first saw negative change by the looters in the first two months. And you can't go to a generating plant and just turn the switch and get lights back on [immediately after damage from the war.]

Now we're showing them positive changes rather than explaining to them the way it can be. Even in the smallest baby steps the thought is to show them a bit of democracy. We created a council — a council of 13, gave them a voice and left it up to them what projects to do.

And that led to …?

We've done major cleanup projects in the place, and we've gotten funding to build a school across from the compound.

How many children in Hills-dale will it help?

There are 250 kids in the compound. At the same time, with the school we're helping the permanent neighborhood and children there beside these transients.

Do you see religious problems from militant Islam?

The Shiite ghetto is a big rectangle in Baghdad. It's an incredible slum. That's where the problems are. The people are very poor and very easily swayed by their religious leaders. It's always a threat one of the powerful religious leaders can call people to rebel.

I think it should definitely be the focus of the American leadership to create solid ties with the local religious leadership.

Is what the media report here the same as what you see going on there?

I didn't get a real good grasp on what the media are dishing out here, but others told me the general idea is that there are questions like why are we there, that we shouldn't be there, that morale is low.

But in my opinion, from what others tell me and from what I see, the morale is not bad. Of course everyone would rather be home more so because of the time of the year, Thanksgiving and Christmas. But that attitude is the same if you're off at school or away working. So it's more the time of year.

Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.