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By Army Spc. Breeanna DuBuke

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Service Members Build, Deliver Wheelchairs To Iraqi Children
(April 13, 2011)

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U.S. Army Sgt. Leslie Peterson, a medic at the Ortiz Troop Medical Clinic at Forward Operating Base Prosperity here, adjusts the strap on the wheelchair for one of the Iraqi children who were provided a brand new, adjustable, pediatric-grade wheelchair here March 5. 2011. The wheelchairs were designed to be versatile enough to fit children who live with a wide variety of mobility challenges.
U.S. Army Sgt. Leslie Peterson, a medic at the Ortiz Troop Medical Clinic at Forward Operating Base Prosperity here, adjusts the strap on the wheelchair for one of the Iraqi children who were provided a brand new, adjustable, pediatric-grade wheelchair here March 5. 2011. The wheelchairs were designed to be versatile enough to fit children who live with a wide variety of mobility challenges.
 BAGHDAD, Iraq (4/10/2011) – Approximately one out of seven Iraqi children struggle with a disability, most of which cause immobility, said Brad Blauser, founder of the Wheelchairs for Iraqi Kids effort, a non-governmental organization founded to bring pediatric wheelchairs to Iraqi children.

The organization, which began in 2005, has distributed more than 600 wheelchairs, purchased with donations from individuals, companies and organizations, to children across Iraq.

Recently, more than 80 volunteers – comprised of U.S. service members, U.S. State Department employees and Iraqi doctors – took time from their normal mission requirements, to assemble and deliver pediatric-grade wheelchairs for distribution to Iraqi children who have restricted mobility.
These wheelchairs are specifically designed so they can be adjusted to fit children who have a wide variety of orthopedic challenges, said Blauser, who personally checks every wheelchair to ensure a proper fit for each child.

These specially-designed, pediatric wheelchairs can be adjusted for each child's unique needs, and ensure a comfortable and secure fit.
But the chair doesn't just account for the comfort of the child.

Developers of the chairs also accounted for the family members who would be moving the child about.

“Even if the chair needs to be laid flat, there is a special handle created to allow families to continue to move the chair without being uncomfortable,” Blauser said.

The most recent volunteer effort was organized by U.S. Navy Sen. Chief Andrew Fittler, the operations non-commissioned officer in charge for United States Forces-Iraq's Baghdad Provincial Reconstruction Team, who became involved with the Wheelchairs for Iraqi Kids organization in early January.

Between the frequent Iraqi sandstorms and Iraq's Day of Demonstrations in late February, Fittler had his hands full trying to schedule dates to deliver the wheelchairs.

“The hardest part of organizing this was coming up with a timeline because of the days of protest and weather,” Fittler said.

Throughout the planning process, Fittler had help to organize the volunteer effort. One individual assisting Fittler is U.S. Army 1st Lt. Teresa Egan, the brigade nurse for 2nd Advise and Assist Brigade, 1st Infantry Division.

However, all the headaches and hassle that went into the planning process were well worth it, Egan said.

It wasn't hard to find volunteers to help with the construction and the delivery of the wheelchairs, Fittler said.

“When you put [the word] out that there's an opportunity to help, people just come running,” Fittler said.

As a part of the effort, medics from the FOB Prosperity's Ortiz Troop Medical Center volunteered to adjust the wheelchairs to fit each child who received one.

“This is a tremendous opportunity to help Iraqi kids in need,” said Army Capt. Steve Showalter, the clinic officer in charge for the Ortiz and FOB Union III TMCs “We work closely with the PRT, training Iraqi physicians, so when we were asked to get involved, we said yes.”

Service members jumped at the opportunity to have personal interaction with Iraqi citizens. Building and delivering a wheelchair is a way to aid an Iraqi family directly, and differs greatly from their daily mission to help the Iraqi people through advising the Government of Iraq.

“The best part is that I get to do something to directly help the Iraqis, instead of pushing papers all day,” said U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Phillip Simpson, a USAID in International Development liaison officer for USF-I Strategic Effects.

For other service members, assembling a wheelchair is a way to make a positive impact to the region in a personal manner.

“For a country that has seen so much negative, it feels good to do something positive,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Edward Peterson, the Senior Advisor for USF-I ITAM Army Logistics.

“Every little thing we do in this country makes a huge difference,” said U.S. Marine Capt. Adam K. Ernst, the executive aid to the Strategic logistics director for Iraq Training and Advisory Mission-Ministry of Defense. “It shows the good will from our country to theirs.”

For the service members who were able to help with the delivery of the wheelchairs, there was nothing like seeing a child smile with true appreciation for their new mobility.

“The best thing about this is just seeing the kids' smiles, seeing that the parents are happy with what we've given,” said U.S. Army Sgt. Leslie Peterson, a medic with Ortiz TMC on FOB Prosperity, Iraq.

“We had one little girl who would laugh every time we went to make an adjustment,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. John Dzienny, the deputy director of the USF-I Iraqi Communication Coordination Engagement Office.

In another group, there was a young Iraqi boy who understood “good” and continued to share it with all who helped fit him into his new wheelchair.

“He's so happy because before, he wasn't able to go to school due to his struggles, but now, he will be able to,” said Dr. Sarah Ali, an Iraqi health advisor for the U.S. Embassy Baghdad's PRT who translated for the boy. “This has helped his confidence.”

For Ali, who grew up and studied here, this is an opportunity to help bring much needed assistance to her people who have to, most times, go out of the country, spending thousands of dollars, to get the help they need, Ali said.

“Every one of the families is so thankful for what we're doing,” Ali said.

“With the wheelchair, families no longer need to carry their kids everywhere,” Ali said. “The mother can now go everywhere with her child and not have to worry about leaving him.”

Since the organization began in 2005, Wheelchairs for Iraqi Kids has helped more than 600 children. U.S. service members already devoted to a mission to advise, train and assist the Government of Iraq, continuously go above and beyond their duties to personally aid Iraqi families.
Article and photo by Army Spc. Breeanna DuBuke, Maryland Army National Guard's 29th Mobile Public Affairs
United States Forces – Iraq, Deputy Commanding General (Advising and Training)
Copyright 2011

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