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Charlotte, N.C., Marine aids local populace in remote, western Iraqi town

28 Feb 2006 | Sgt. Stephen M. DeBoard

In the battle to win the confidence and trust of the Iraqi people, Marines from 6th Civil Affairs Group guide the way. Once a city has been swept free of insurgents by coalition forces, these Marines are charged with providing aid to Iraqis to improve their quality of life and help them rebuild.

Cpl. Michael C. Kissiah, Jr., of Charlotte, N.C., has come to the forefront to provide aid to the thousands who reside inside this city, located in western Al Anbar Province. The 24-year-old’s duties routinely take him to this city to deliver medical supplies and food, and to catalogue the needs of the people here, which he’s done now for about eight months.

Since arriving here in July, Kissiah has grown to know the town’s people, as well as their culture and beliefs – a key component to working with tribal leadership.

“They are very passionate about their beliefs and they hold family to the core of there lives,” said Kissiah, who added that he “misses everything about home” and can’t wait to spend time with his own family when he returns to the States next month. “They are very generous and they are always trying to give me things and make tea or food for me.”

Such civil duties are a far cry from the job Kissiah enlisted for in the Marine Reserves two years ago, he said. Originally a telephone repair technician, he joined 6th CAG as one of the many reservists who make up the unit’s ranks.

From telephone repairmen to electricians, Kissiah said reservists have certain skills which prove useful during civil affairs operations. Many 6th CAG Marines are reservists and have civilian jobs back in the States, and they can use their talents to better the quality of life for Iraqis here.  

But today, there are no telephone lines to repair or electricity issues. Instead, Kissiah and his fellow Marines are delivering supplies to Akashat’s residents: humanitarian rations, medical supplies, hygiene gear, cooking supplies, and toys.

“We want to keep good relations with the people in Akashat,” said Kissiah, a third generation Marine. His father fought in Vietnam; his grandfather in World War II. “They (Iraqis) help us out against the bad guys.”

Civil affairs Marines operate in small teams which gives each team member more responsibility than would be expected of them in a larger unit – especially junior enlisted Marines, such as Kissiah. Operating in small teams also allows the Marines to make a direct impact in their areas of responsibility and see the progress of their efforts – such as restoring electricity, and giving the Iraqis drinkable water.

Such projects are planned and revised through continued meetings with Akashat’s tribal leadership. Kissiah deals directly with the local leadership, who acts as a liaison for the entire community.

While Kissiah is the point man in civil affairs efforts here, it wasn’t that way from the beginning, said Maj. Louis D. Caporale, the officer-in-charge of Kissiah’s and other civil affairs teams operating in the area.

Initially, the tasks Kissiah has tackled head-on were deemed a bit overwhelming for younger, less experienced Marines. From handing out soccer balls to discussing the future course of the municipal government with local leaders, Kissiah has proven that youth and a lack of experience can be overcome with determination and hard work.

“When Kissiah initially started in Akashat, he was probably a little overwhelmed,” recalled Caporale. “(But) when I was an infantry officer, I found if you give (corporals and sergeants) responsibilities, you find creative solutions to your problems.”

With just a few more weeks to go until he redeploys to Camp Lejeune, N.C., Kissiah said he’s pleased with the progress he and the other civil affairs Marines have made here.

In fact, he believes the “war will be won with civil affairs,” said Kissiah.

“During OIF I (Operation Iraqi Freedom), the Marines were fighting [certain groups] in Husaybah, but now these are the same people that we are working together with in Akashat helping us fight the insurgents,” said Kissiah.

Kissiah recalled one particular event during Iraq’s parliamentary elections last December which continues to give him faith in Iraq’s fledgling democracy. On election day, the Marines were handing out Iraqi national flags to residents here. A young boy took one of the flags, climbed a rooftop and waved the flag in the air while flashing the “peace” symbol with his other hand.

Kissiah photographed the boy on the building – a scene which serves as a subtle reminder to him that Iraq’s future will be one of stability and prosperity.

“I see this picture and I have new hope for the people of Iraq,” said Kissiah. “He (the boy) was very proud to be an Iraqi that day, and I was proud to be there.”

Kissiah, who works for United Parcel Service in Charlotte, said the varied duties of a civil affairs specialist – logistics, planning, building relationships and so on – have prepared him for his return to civilian life.

“I can’t wait to get back to (work) and apply what I’ve learned,” said Kissiah. “I feel like I can tackle anything back home after doing this.”