Friday, December 28, 2007

Marine helps bridge gap between Arabic, American cultures

Dec. 27, 2007; Submitted on: 12/27/2007 08:56:35 AM ; Story ID#: 2007122785635
By Cpl. Andrew Kalwitz, 2nd Marine Logistics Group

KABANI, Iraq (Dec. 19, 2007) – A young Iraqi girl holds the hand of a Marine from Battery K, 1st Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment while he talks with some of the people here. The relationship with the Marines and the people of the village has enabled coordination for a new water treatment facility.

AL TAQADDUM, Iraq (Dec. 27, 2007) -- They have their differences. In fact, they often don’t even speak the same language. But U.S. service members share one thing with the Iraqi people; they have the same goal – security and stability for Al Anbar province, Iraq.

This empowers their relationship. This and Marines like Staff Sgt. Robert Sanders, the operations chief for Battery K, 1st Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment.

He developed an understanding of Arab culture during his upbringing in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Though born at Fort Benning, Ga., his father’s discharge from the Army after Vietnam led to a job as an oil field worker, which kept the family on the move.

Now Sanders’ own travels have taken him back to a familiar culture, but with his new extended family; his fellow Marines.

“Staff Sgt. Sanders is our bid for success in the villages,” said 1st Lt. Matthew Thompson, the executive officer for the battery. “He has found his niche in working with the Iraqis. He can communicate with the Iraqis without an interpreter and they can communicate with him.”

Thompson, a Presho, S.D., native, credits Sanders with helping to gain rapport with the nearby village of Kabani. In addition to the battery’s plans to build a new water treatment plant, a rebuilt school now stands as a testament to the coordination between the Marines and the people of the village.

Sanders has put his cultural and linguistic skills to use for the military before. He lived among the Iraqi people for seven months at the East Fallujah Iraqi Compound during his 2004 deployment.

He supervised civilian contractors there and grew comfortable with the Iraqi people and their lifestyle, even getting used to the food and water to the point where returning to his old eating habits upset his stomach when he returned to the States. Things were different then, he said. This was before thousands in Al Anbar province turned against the insurgency to cooperate with coalition forces in what came to be known as the “Anbar Awakening.”

“I remember sitting at Fallujah and you could sit up on a Hesco barrier and you could watch car bombs exploding in the distance,” said Sanders. “Every night, we’d sit out there on the Hescos and smoke cigars and you could watch tracers shoot across the sky. You don’t hear that anymore.”

Bonding with the people, he said, was a major part of the solution. With regard to the importance of these relationships, Sanders has held classes to further his Marines’ understanding of the Arabic language and culture.

“It definitely makes our job a lot easier,” said Lance Cpl. Hunter Leger, a fire team leader with the battery. “We’ve been able to handle things without having to call someone up.”

Leger, a Lake Charles, La., native, said he and his colleagues are knowledgeable enough to work the entry control points without the help of an interpreter. As one of Sanders’ Marines at their home station of Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., he said he’s developed a respect for the staff sergeant’s professionalism. It seems many of the local Iraqis have done the same.

When the battery sends Marines to Kabani to coordinate with the muqtar, or mayor, he first asks them ‘where is Abu Iskander?’ in reference to Sanders, the father of Alexander.

As Sanders has with many of the village’s people, he has developed a friendship with the muqtar, who jokes that the Marine could win over enough popularity in the town to beat him out for his position in the next election.

“The people like him too much,” Muqtar Ismail Mohmood Hamad said. “They come in from time to time to see what’s going on and he always likes to help the people.”

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