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Back from Iraq, veteran finds charity work, maybe politics

Former Army Capt. Jon Powers launched War Kids Relief to help Baghdad's orphans.

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It was after a screening in New York City that Powers struck up a conversation with a member of Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, Joe Donahue. Mr. Donahue asked what Powers would do if he could go back to Iraq, and the answer came in an instant: "Without a doubt, help the kids."

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Donahue says he seldom meets veterans who want to return to the war zone they just fought their way out of, especially to do humanitarian work. He himself had struggled to break into such work after leaving the Army and knew it could be daunting to find an outlet for good intentions.

"I didn't have a clue about it," Donahue recalled during a recent phone interview. "I was calling the United Nations switchboard." Enthusiastic about Powers's idea, Donahue pledged to try to get backing from the veterans foundation.

Says Powers: "When I finally had time to decompress at home is when I decided to go back" to Iraq to start War Kids Relief.

Powers returned to Iraq in August 2005, a little more than a year after he'd left, to run his new charity to help Iraqi orphans. With only a contract from Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation to help fund it, and his Army Reservist ID in hand, "I literally talked my way into the green zone," he says.

Over several weeks he met with high-ranking Iraqi ministers to drum up support for the project. He sent discreet delegations of Iraqis to meet with the directors of two orphanages in Adhamiyah. He outlined a bigger vision – a Baghdad network of work-study centers for the older kids – that has not yet obtained funding, though the Iraqi government now has the blueprint for setting up such a program. And War Kids Relief continues to advocate US engagement with Iraqi youths.

"He had a lot of passion for the project," says Donahue, who overlapped with Powers in Baghdad for a time while doing his own work on land mines. Though foreigners were not permitted to visit the kids, Powers "got goods flowing to those orphanages...," says Donahue. "He was very good at building sources of support he could rely on."

New direction

Back home, the Harris Hill Men's Club held a fundraiser for War Kids Relief. NBC News picked up on the effort, giving it national publicity. The RAND Corp. and the Johns Hopkins University's School for Advanced International Studies in Washington asked Powers to write papers making the case that helping Iraqi orphans was not just a humanitarian cause but in America's strategic interest.

"If we don't find a way to positively engage these kids we'll be fighting them for centuries," Powers says. "It plays right into the extremists."

But he began to wonder if he couldn't do more by working on a larger scale. "What I realized through War Kids was, as much as I tried, I wasn't going to change policy," says Powers.

So in May 2006 he decided to run for a US House seat in his home district of Buffalo. Citing a conflict of interest, Powers this month is handing over control of the charity to Charles London, author of a book on child soldiers.

"This is all surreal," he says, shaking his head in a New York law office during a recent whirlwind fundraising tour. "I never thought I would run for Congress."

Now he campaigns to exhaustion, driven by the same force that prompted him to start War Kids – his time in Adhamiyah.

"This is an extension of my time there. War Kids is an extension of my time there," he says. "For me, it's been a real long process to get to the point I am today."