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.
"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
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."
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."
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."