Back from Iraq, veteran finds charity work, maybe politics
Former Army Capt. Jon Powers launched War Kids Relief to help Baghdad's orphans.
When Army Capt. Jon Powers entered the gates of the Baghdad orphanage in January 2004, the nun in charge pulled him aside. Insurgents had noted his soldiers' visits, she said, and they'd threatened to kill the children if the Americans didn't stop coming with donations of toys and clothing.Skip to next paragraph
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"Aside from losing my guys, it was my darkest day there," says Mr. Powers, now back in the US and discharged from the Army.
Giving up visits to that orphanage and another in Baghdad's Adhamiyah neighborhood was surprisingly crushing. Through 14 dusty, exhausting months – including losing four men and a translator with his battalion during battles in Adhamiyah – Powers's touchstone had been those kids.
"Soldiers could take their gear off and remember what we were doing [in Iraq]," he says of the visits, one of which involved delivery of 5,000 pairs of shoes donated by Americans.
Cut off from the kids after that January day, Powers found himself anxiously awaiting July, when he could go home and leave it all behind. Little did he guess those orphans would stay with him – and help to change the direction of his life.
A fork in the road
He was back in Buffalo, N.Y., by mid-summer, the guest of honor at a welcome home party by the Harris Hill Men's Club, founded in part by his father. The former altar boy and Eagle Scout was home, but the war – which he calls "the defining experience of my life" – had left a deep imprint. It found expression as a drive that would eventually turn, Powers says now, "into something positive."
He went ahead and applied to graduate school at State University of New York in Buffalo. Before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, he'd studied in college to be a social studies teacher, and now he planned to become a principal. Then, one day he got a call from a filmmaker who had lived with Powers's unit in Baghdad while making a documentary about them. The film was finished, and its maker invited Powers to attend screenings in more than 20 US cities and to speak to the audiences afterward.
Powers opted for the documentary – a decision that would prove to be transformational.
While on the tour, he talked with other veterans and found, to his surprise, common threads in their experiences.
"All this traveling around to talk about it helped me better understand my thoughts on the war.… I realized for the first time my story wasn't as personal as I thought it was," Powers recalls in an interview in New York. "I could be a voice for it."
The road trip included screenings on Capitol Hill. Powers and other soldiers on the film tour were surprised by questions from staffers for House members. The Beltway crowd seemed more interested in what the soldiers ate in Iraq than what light their war experiences could shed on US policy there. He says he came away disillusioned. After having "such a faith in Washington," he now felt policymakers were out of touch with what was happening in Iraq.
"Coming to terms with that took a long time," he says. "There was a long period of frustration [after] coming to D.C. and seeing how the discussion is."
A novice humanitarian