CAMP FALLUJAH, Iraq -- Marines arrived in Kharma to a sea of smiles and waving hands from Iraqi schoolchildren May 22.
It was a sign of the distinct difference Marines of 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment are making here.
Marines visited a school in Kharma to pass out school supplies, toys and other items in an effort to further cement their relationship with the citizens of Kharma. It was the latest in a series of projects Marines conducted here and one that's showcasing 1st Marine Division's "no better friend" efforts.
"It turned out to be a good day," said Maj. Lawrence J. Kaifesh, a 36-year-old civil affairs Marine Team Leader for 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment from Chicago.
"I wanted to make sure the school supplies would get to kids who would appreciate it," added Kaifesh, a Chicago Marine.
Kaifesh and his Marines delivered more than 1,500 book bags filled with school supplies to Kharma students. The supplies were donated to Marines to pass out to Iraqis from Spirit of America, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization.
The donations included book bags with school supplies, Frisbees, soccer balls and toys. There were also items for the city as a whole, including toys, medical supplies and fire-fighting gear.
"It's always a good thing to help people, but especially kids who are caught in the middle," said Sgt. Jose A. Orozco, a 30-year-old Los Angeles Marine with the civil affairs team.
The outreach effort to Kharma is focused to dispel any lingering hostilities that emerged while Marines fought terrorist here in April. Kharma was the site of fierce fighting, with Marines killing more than 100 terrorists.
Now, Marines brandish gifts instead of weapons, demonstrating to the Iraqi citizens their fight was against those who brought fear and intimidation and not against the local citizens, Kaifesh explained.
Still, donations in this city weren't limited to school supplies. Medical equipment was also purchased to improve capabilities at local clinic. Two new x-ray machines, a dental chair, medical supplies were given to the Iraqis as well as renovations conducted on the clinic, Kaifesh said.
It's all part of a concentrated effort that's produced tangible results.
"A youth center and a ribbon-cutting ceremony for an Internet café was held last week," he said.
More Internet connections and a communications center are currently in the planning stages to be built in Kharma.
"We've only been here three weeks, but we've made some pretty good progress and we'll continue to do so," Kaifesh explained.
Kaifesh said that within the last few weeks, Marines fixed 11 schools and fully restored six water purification plants that will deliver potable water to the entire city.
The change in the city is drastic compared to early April when the area was engulfed in the fighting that erupted in nearby Fallujah.
"Now a month later, the ICDC and Iraqi Police are on the streets, shops are open and the streets are bustling again," said Capt. Jamie M. McCall, a 29-year-old from Wilmington, Del.
"This town has changed dramatically, because they wouldn't look or wave at us," added McCall, the battalion's staff judge advocate. "Now they do. It's remarkable."
Kaifesh said that while not on the road searching for new developments, he keeps busy at base camp dealing with city officials and village leader.
"We're meeting with council members all the time," he said. "We want to take care of these folks as much as possible."
Kaifesh and his Marines still have a tough schedule ahead of them. Progress is being made, but they are still wary of occasional attacks from roadside bombs and small-arms fire. Still, progress is being made and concrete plans are being worked for further improvements for Kharma.
"Right now we have about 200 claims and over 40 projects that are in one stage or another," he said. "We're in Phase 1, which consists of water, electricity, sanitation and healthcare."