Friday, December 09, 2005

Deployed Servicemembers Volunteer at Orphanages

By Spc. Garth Gehlen

US Service Members provide vaccines for children in this Djibouti City orphanage. By SPC Garth Gehlen - 304th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment - US Central Command Djibouti City, Djibouti— U.S. servicemembers deployed to the Horn of Africa typically do not have very much free time. Work takes up most of their days, but what little free time they do have is easy to fill. There are excellent gym facilities, video games and movies, a cantina that hosts nightly activities, sports and even a pool. One of the most popular ways to enjoy precious time away from work here, however, is donating it to help others.

The interfaith chapel on Camp Lemonier, Djibouti, organizes trips for servicemembers to local orphanages so they can lend a helping hand to the orphans living here and spend their time doing something fun and worthwhile.

“It sounded like the perfect way to exercise my own faith by extending love and hope to the poor and hurting,” said U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Tyler Parris. Parris visits two orphanages in the area to, “see poverty that I have never even imagined, and for a time to lift the burden from those who would feed the babies or mind the children,” he said.

During these visits, servicemembers spend time with the orphans playing sports or listening as they play musical instruments and sing. The troops also help to feed the children and hold infants so they have human contact.

“It is unfortunate to see poverty, at its ultimate, affecting innocent young children and babies who did not ask or do anything to be living in poor conditions,” said U.S. Navy Hospitalman Third Class Alesha Williams. “I love to help in any way possible.”

The servicemembers are part of the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), part of U.S. Central Command. The task force’s mission is civil affairs, medical, veterinary, engineering and military training operations. The overall goal is to improve the infrastructure, health and security of the nations in the region to counteract the spread of terrorism.

“I feel this is one of the most important missions in the Marine Cops today, terrorism prevention,” said Parris. “Why get into invasion, occupation and nation building if you don’t have to?”

CJTF-HOA has operated in this primarily Muslim country since 2002, building schools, water wells, orphanages and clinics as well as providing medical, dental and veterinary aid to the local population and livestock. The orphanage visits are the servicemembers’ personal contribution to the effort.

“I go to the orphanage because I feel that showing children you care will let them know that the American people care,” said U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman Richard O’Dell. “The Navy has really opened my eyes up and showed me that a little man with a big heart can make a change no matter how far away you are from home.”

While the orphanage visits do provide an opportunity for the servicemembers to get off post and do something interesting, helping those in need is the primary reason it has become so popular.

“My heart is overwhelmed with sorrow for these people,” said Williams. “The Navy has given me the opportunity of a lifetime. I am here in Africa giving of my time and assets to make this a better place.”

Both Williams and O’Dell have been involved in Medical Civil Action projects (MedCAPs) around Djibouti to vaccinate children against polio. This program, just one of several MedCAPs the U.S. military undertakes in the Horn of Africa, began when the president of Djibouti, Ismail Omar Guelleh, asked the United States for assistance following polio outbreaks in neighboring countries. It also gave the servicemembers involved a chance to interact with the children and make a difference in their lives.

“It was a blast to see how happy the kids were and spend some time with them,” said O’Dell.

Going to remote villages in the countryside gave O’Dell a chance to see a part of Africa that most people do not.

“It reminded me of one of those ads you see on TV where they are asking for money for the poor,” O’Dell said. “I never thought it was true until I saw this with my own eyes. They were so happy to even get a little sip of water.”

O’Dell said that even though the children were nervous and wary of U.S. servicemembers at first, they were quick to make friends when they realized Americans were there to help.

“An unforgettable feeling of pride and love for America and the military had been forever branded in my heart and mind,” said Williams, “We are not here wasting time or taxpayers money. We are making the world a better, peaceful place and helping those who cannot help themselves.”

I just wanted to let people see that our military does a lot of good in a lot of places. I get so very tired of hearing certain politicians and the MSM criticizing our service people.

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