US Reservists Help Rebuild Kuwait

Civil affairs soldiers fight hunger, garbage, restore electrical power, even fix up police cars

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

EACH day hundreds of United States soldiers make their way around Kuwait City attired in full military gear, but playing a crucial noncombat role in helping put Kuwait back together. Some of the soldiers are engineers who lay the tubing and power lines to help restore power. Others help fix police cars, exterminate insects, or deliver food and medicine.

The US men and women embarking on the task of reconstructing war-battered Kuwait come primarily from the US Army Reserve. More than 2,000 of them were called away just months ago from their civilian jobs to don uniforms and prepare to assist Kuwait after the war. Only one of the civil affairs units now engaged was on active duty.

One soldier, a historian with a doctorate, is helping assess damage to Kuwait's National Museum. But lawyers and public administrators are also involved. A US soldier, also an expert in international finance, is counseling the Kuwaiti government on rebuilding its banking system.

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"We are the interface between military and civilian, performing jobs not often associated with the army, but very necessary after a war," says Sgt. 1st Class Richard Browne, a journalist from North Carolina who is now acting as a public affairs officer with the units grouped in "Task Force Freedom."

Most of the units were activated last December at the request of the Kuwaiti government, then in exile, to plan for rebuilding Kuwait first in a 90-day emergency phase, then shifting to a longer-term effort. Organizing began in Washington, D.C., then moved to Saudi Arabia as the war began. When the war ended operations moved to Kuwait.

Taking on what can sometimes be a delicate political task, the civil affairs soldiers see their role as that of advisers, not as the country's administrators.

"We are like the Roto-Rooter man, the quick fix to help get things started," says Sergeant Browne, speaking in the building complex that was the Kuwait Ministry of Education. Dubbed "Camp Freedom," the complex is where most civil affairs units are based. "Our goal is to advise and work along with the Kuwaitis, and then pull out as soon as we can," Browne adds.

The units are also charged with meeting civilian companies that are contracting with Kuwaiti authorities for long-term jobs, such as fighting fires at more than 600 oil wells around the country. Heavy equipment is arriving on huge C-5 transport planes as various Texas-based companies prepare to tackle the blazes.

Collecting Iraqi trash

Road-building and repairing damaged buildings will also be left to civilians. But civil affairs units have been assessing destruction at locales from the museum to hundreds of schools damaged during the seven-month occupation. British, Saudi, and French forces are also helping, particularly in such priority areas as restoring power and clearing mines and unexploded bombs.

Explosive Ordnance Disposal teams have had their hands full sweeping buildings, beaches, and the city airport of mines and explosives. Other teams have had the unpleasant job of collecting piles of garbage and other filth from public buildings used by the Iraqis.

"We found seven months of trash and laundry here when we arrived," says Sgt. 1st Class June Forte at the Handicapped Care Center, a building complex housing physically and mentally disabled people. Lack of food and care during the occupation resulted in the deaths of 129 patients at the center, which is still forced to cook over an open fire and draw water from a well.

As Army engineers try to install a generator to provide emergency power to the center, volunteers from various units come each day to assist the staff and bring treats for the patients.

"Helping out here means more to me than anything, for each time I come the patients seem to gain so much just from our presence," says Sheila Venson, a Sgt. 1st Class whose official duties are to counsel the Kuwaitis on labor relations.

People and animal care

US Ambassador to Kuwait Edward Gnehm applauded US civil affairs teams and the center's staff, saying the fate of the disabled was of particular concern.

"The damages to buildings, even to the oil fields, doesn't count as much because that's all material," he said to the center directors and civil affairs personnel last month. "This work is for people.... All of your work here has showed that you really care."

Another project of particular concern has been the Kuwait City Zoo, where an Army Veterinary Unit has treated wounded and neglected animals.

"I've got different volunteers coming each day to help," says Sgt. Warren Cox, a veterinary food inspector with the Army's 483rd Medical Detachment. "We've got most of the cages cleaned and the animals which survived are getting better. But in the overall scheme of things, the zoo is not top priority, and we desperately need more food."

Many unit members have said it's been difficult finding people to do heavy work such as cleaning, particularly because Kuwaitis have traditionally hired foreign workers for drudgery work. But most of the estimated 1 million guest workers left the country after the Iraqi invasion, and the Kuwaiti government wants to limit the number returning.

Apart from their immediate tasks, the civil affairs soldiers also face bureaucratic roadblocks that range from relief-supply delays at the Saudi-Kuwaiti border to the inefficiencies of a weak government trying to reestablish itself.

"It's often a matter of getting coordination between the various ministries," says Col. Ralph Young, chief of the Human Services Team for the Kuwait Task Force, a subgroup of the larger civil affairs structure. "For example, the Minister of Health has to tell the Minister of Electricity and Water to arrange for water trucks to deliver water to hospitals. And there are still instances where water has not been delivered."

Emergency food has been handed out at distribution centers, but complaints abound that non-Kuwaitis - including the city's large Palestinian population - receive lesser quantities.

"The food doesn't always get where it's supposed to go," says Sgt. 1st Class Jessie Skipwith of the 352nd Civil Affairs Command, referring to items such as rice, sugar, and cooking oil. "For one thing, the Kuwaitis deliver the same amount to each neighborhood, without taking into account that some areas have more people."

He said the Kuwaitis had originally asked the US military to oversee the whole process to ensure more equitable distribution. But the civil affairs team declined.

"That wouldn't have been right. We're only to advise and assist, not run things," Sergeant Skipwith says.

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