By Daniel Silliman
The American mission in Iraq is being reinforced, this weekend, with a shipment of stuffed animals.
Arranged by a local Army Reserve chaplain and sent from Fort McPherson, about 500 stuffed animals -- from Beanie Babies to teddy bears in stocking caps -- will be leaving Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport Saturday, headed for southern Iraq.
Starting a week before Christmas, American soldiers in Ad Diwaniyah will be giving the stuffed animals away to local children.
Chaplain Paul Linzey, a lieutenant colonel with the Army Reserve, recently returned from Iraq, and said reaching out to the Iraqi children was one of the most moving things he saw in the war-torn country.
"When I was in Ad Diwaniyah, it was a pretty gruesome time over there," Linzey said. "We would go into towns where there were suspected weapons or enemy combatants. You go down town and there are people on the side of the road. They would just line up and you can make eye contact, and it's a very human connection, it's a great human connection, and that's what we want to build on."
While in Iraq, learning how to train chaplains to go to a war zone, Linzey took lots of photos, and e-mailed them back to Rebecca O'Toole, at Fort McPherson. O'Toole, a facilities manager at the East Point military base, found she was especially moved by the pictures of the country's children.
"And then, I talked to soldiers, and I asked, 'How was your time over there?'" she remembers. "They would talk about the kids, and how they would love giving them things. The kids would come up to them, up to the soldiers, even though the adults are standoffish."
Looking at the pictures of Iraqi children and hearing the stories of how they reacted to the American men and women in uniform, O'Toole decided to collect some stuffed animals to send to the southern military installation, for soldiers to give away. She bought a couple of teddy bears, told the Army Reservists working in Fort McPherson what she was doing, and had about 500 stuffed animals in a few weeks.
Linzey said the project "snowballed." He believes the Army reservists around Atlanta jumped on the idea because of the way it will create good will.
"We have the chance to shape the way that generation of Iraqis sees the United States," the lieutenant colonel said. "If, somehow, a generation grows up and they think, 'You know, when the Americans were over here they were normal people, they were caring, they were friendly,' then that's the most important thing we could do."
O'Toole agrees that positive contact between Americans and Iraqi children could change the future. "That's who's going to make the difference, the children," she said. "Just like here. The children, they're the ones who are going to run the United States, or run Iraq."
Linzey also cites a second reason the shipment of stuffed animals is significant: The emotional health of soldiers.
"You see this crusty old sergeant walking up to a little kid, 'You need a stuffed animal?'" Linzey said. "They don't want anybody to see it, but it provides the soldiers with a sense of home and the sense that, OK, not everything is bleak in this world ... Our men and women are soldiers because they want to make the world a better place. This reminds them. It's not that the Army is out there to shoot and kill and blow things up, but we're there to make the world a better place."