RUTBAH, Iraq --
When people typically think of Marines on a combat patrol in Iraq, the last thing that comes to mind is the image of fluffy stuffed animals.
However, with the help of a grass-roots organization in the United States, the Marines of 2nd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 5 spread American goodwill to the children of Iraq Oct. 21-23. The Marines distributed more than a hundred stuffed animals while patrolling the streets of Rutbah, an impoverished town of about 20,000 in western al-Anbar province.
“The (stuffed animals) help to connect us to the local children and for them to view us in a positive light,” said Capt. Tim Leonard, 30, a Stamford, Conn., resident who is serving as the battalion’s communications officer. “We are fortunate that people back in the states have donated the stuffed animals to benefit the children of Iraq.”
The gesture is key in building relationships between Coalition forces and the Iraqi civilians in Rutbah, most of whom have had little interaction with the Marines and sailors.
“By engaging the local population and giving out stuffed animals to the children, we show the people of Rutbah that we are here to help them to rebuild their community and assist them in their efforts,” explained Leonard, a reserve Marine with more than seven years in the Corps and who is on his second tour in Iraq. “Humanitarian assistance is increasingly important for us, and any measure of good will is well received.”
Sara Khalid Rafa’a, 11, a native of Rutbah, received two stuffed animals from Marines Oct. 23 while walking home from school with her friends. These were the only stuffed animals she has ever received in her life.
“I want to say thank you to the people who sent them,” said Rafa’a through an interpreter. “I like the stuffed animals because they are beautiful.”
The stuffed animals that the troops distributed were donated and shipped to Iraq by Americans through non-profit organizations endorsed by America Supports You (ASY), a Department of Defense organization created several years ago to consolidate patriotic 501(c) non-profit organizations wishing to support the troops in the Global War on Terror.
One organization that sent four boxes of stuffed animals to the Marines for distribution in Rutbah was Beanies for Baghdad (B4B), which was started in Kuwait in 2003 by two U.S. Army soldiers. The current national coordinator is Donna Ward, 63, a grandmother of seven from Evansville, Ind., who works full-time in support of B4B.
“Our mission is to give a (stuffed animal) to children in war-torn areas and to put a smile on their faces,” said Ward. “Many of these children have never seen a toy, never less owned one. These small gestures of kindness also give our troops something they enjoy doing to form long-lasting friendships in sometimes less-than-friendly communities.”
Brent Meister, 10, a fifth-grade student from Kingsley-Pierson School in Kingsley, Iowa, learned about B4B while doing an internet search to look for a citizenship project for his 4-H Club.
Meister, who has sent about 150 of the toys overseas, mailed a box of stuffed animals in September with a letter stating, “I had lots of beanies that I did not want anymore so I donated them. I also asked my friends to donate. I like doing things to help others. I think this is a good project. Plus, I got my room cleaned.”
Ruth Ray from Port Carbon, Pa., sent a care package which included snacks, books and stuffed animals to the Marines on behalf of another ASY organization, Sponsor the Troops.
“I try to show my thanks to all who are serving with letters expressing my gratitude and little care packages to help boost morale,” wrote Ray, 71, who remembers her father, a U.S. Army physician, going off to serve in World War II in New Guinea.
In addition to passing out the toys while on patrol, the battalion’s religious program specialist, Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael Marie, includes the stuffed animals in his weekly care packages that he prepares for less-fortunate families in Rutbah.
“Local Iraqi leaders have identified close to 200 widows and their families for us to help, and you can be sure that most of these women have more than one child,” said Marie, 31, who is a Navy reservist from Unionville, Conn., and a property and casualty insurance agent in his civilian career.
“I’m always happy to throw in stuffed animals when I have them,” explained Marie. “The food we deliver meets a physical need, but it doesn’t say, ‘We care,’ the same way a stuffed teddy bear or puppy dog can. Hopefully, these toys soften us in the eyes of the widows and children we’re trying to help.”
Since the Marines began passing out the toys to the city’s children and parents, some of the tension that the Marines felt in the city has dissipated, and some of the local citizens’ wary glances have been replaced with appreciative smiles.
“Sending (stuffed animals) is a small thing to do for our troops that are doing so much for all of us,” said Ward. “My soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen are awesome, and when I receive a thank you from them when a box arrives, their joy is overwhelming.”
For more information about how to get involved in supporting U.S. service members overseas, visit the ASY website at www.americasupportsyou.org.