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Helping Iraq’s Most Vulnerable

Capt. Jonathan Powers, who served a tour in Iraq, hopes to return to work with children.

Whenever the daily battles with Iraqi insurgents or the slow pace of reconstruction began to disturb Capt. Jonathan Powers, he would visit St. Hannah’s Orphanage in the violent north Baghdad neighborhood of Adhamiya.

During the summer and fall of 2003, Powers and fellow troops in the Army’s 1st Armored Division volunteered their spare time to play with the orphans and assist their caretakers.

Though not part of their official reconstruction duties, the soldiers delivered toys and books, built a playground at another Baghdad orphanage and ensured there was enough fuel to run the generators.

For Powers, who saw four members of his battalion killed in action during his 14 months stationed in Iraq, these visits were a welcome escape from the stress of fighting a burgeoning insurgency in the dusty streets of the capital, and imbued him with a sense of purpose.

“It gave me a reason for being there,” said Powers, 27, sitting in the living room of his central Arlington home. “No matter what the original justification for the mission — to find weapons of mass destruction or build democracy — when you’re on the ground, the mission is taking care of what is in front of you. Here was something we could actually change.”

In January 2004, Powers learned first-hand the vicious nature of the insurgency.

One of the caretakers told Powers not to return to the orphanage, because insurgents had threatened to kill the children if they saw American troops enter the building again. Though Powers continued to provide food and clothing via interpreters, he was no longer able to visit the children he had become so attached to.

“It shook me harshly,” Powers said. “No one else was going to do anything for them.”

Upon completing his military duty in July of 2004, Powers vowed to find a way to help safeguard Iraqi orphans and assist them as they recover from the devastating effects of the war.

This past November, Powers established War Kids Relief, a program under the auspices of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation. The new organization aims to create a network of Iraqi-run orphanages, provide training for caretakers and refurbish damaged facilities.

Powers also hopes to launch a “family program” to find homes for children living on the streets, and build a career and job center for Iraqi youth.

“The goal is to give these kids hope,” said Joe Donahue, vice president of programming for VVAF. “We’re going to get them off the streets, and give them educational and employment opportunities.”

The high death toll and economic disruption of the war has left many children fending for themselves. War Kids Relief estimates there are more than 5,000 orphans in Baghdad alone.

Powers is concerned that many are falling prey to the insurgency and argues that little American reconstruction funding is earmarked for children’s needs.

“I’m driven to do this in order to make Iraq a better place,” Powers said. “I don’t want to see this entire generation of kids lost because of our mistakes.”

POWERS GREW UP in Buffalo and won a scholarship with AROTC to attend John Carroll University in Ohio. As part of the scholarship he made a four-year commitment to the army and was deployed to a military base in Germany after graduating in 2000.

His infantry brigade entered Iraq in May 2003, during the lull between the downfall of Sadam’s regime and the strengthening of the insurgency movement. Though trained as an artillery man, Powers was placed in charge of reconstruction and logistical operations in a sector of Baghdad.

“We had no training in any of this,” Powers said. “No one knew what to expect when we got there.”

His responsibilities included restoring electricity to the neighborhood, rebuilding schools and ensuring sewage and other utilities worked properly. Powers and his troops provided the security necessary to enable propane shops to open in a time of heavy looting.

“When we came to the area there were tanks in the middle of fields, ammunition in backyards and no trash pick-up in months,” he said. “Things were a mess. But we did our best to improve it.”

Among his proudest accomplishments was organizing one of Iraq’s first elections, for a neighborhood advisory council in June 2003.

In many districts, American officers appointed representatives to local councils. Unable to speak the language or identify whom among tribal leaders was most trustworthy, Powers decided it was best to let the citizens pick their own representatives.

After his discharge from the army, Powers returned to Buffalo to teach. He reunited with Michael Tucker, a friend from Iraq who was promoting his movie “Gunner Palace.” Powers has a brief role in the film and traveled for six weeks with Tucker on the movie’s publicity tour.

After a screening, Powers met Donahue and outlined his vision for aiding Iraqi children. Powers soon joined VVAF and began fashioning the War Kids Relief Program.

“Jon doesn’t need a whole lot of help because he’s such a charismatic guy,” Donahue said. “He’s doing really well getting the necessary attention focused on this important issue.”

War Kids Relief is submitting funding proposals to U.S. AID, the United Nations and international donors. Powers hopes he will be able to leave for Iraq by the summer to begin implementing the program.

Powers said he would like to unify Iraq’s orphanages under a centrally-managed network to better facilitate the management of the orphanages and the training of staff.

This “safe haven” network would ultimately be administered solely by Iraqis, in order to give the program legitimacy among the people.

“The Iraqis have to be running this,” Powers said. “We will just give them the vehicle to do it. But it needs to come from their government, not from Americans.

The resilience of the insurgency has meant the American military and Iraqi government have had to use a large portion of the reconstruction funds on security and rebuilding the country’s infrastructure. To date, little money has been allocated for youth educational and employment projects, Powers said.

He is hoping to build a career center in Baghdad to enable teenagers to acquire vocational training. There have already been reports of teenagers joining the insurgency and terrorists using children to plant road-side bombs.

In order for the mission in Iraq to be a long-term success, Powers said, it is imperative that Iraqi youth are provided with guidance and training.

“If we don’t engage these youth now, we will be fighting them down the road,” he said.