EDITOR'S NOTE: In January 2005, more than 3,500 members of the 155th Brigade Combat Team, a National Guard unit based in Tupelo, Miss., were deployed to Iraq. The brigade is stationed across five bases just south of Baghdad. Members of the 155th BCT have been tasked with both establishing peace and restoring the Iraqi economy through grassroots projects like building schools and assisting Iraqi farmers.
In April, the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo sent reporter Jennifer Farish and photographer Thomas Wells to Iraq to report on the lives and jobs of the men and women of the 155th BCT. The following story by Farish was a result of that assignment. The with this story were taken by Wells.
FORWARD OPERATIONS BASE KALSU, Iraq — Despite obvious cultural differences between life in the United States and here, it seems some things are universal.
Soldiers with the 155th Brigade Combat Team who work in civilian life as farmers are using those common bonds both to communicate with Iraqi tribes and to offer new ideas to improve the small farming community.
“I try to show them that other than being soldiers, we are just like they are. We just speak a different language,” said Sgt. Charles Smith, a farmer from Holly Springs, Miss.
Smith, who works in a guard tower just yards from one of those farms, has shared homemade tomato juice, pickled okra and other Southern delicacies with farmers who grow many of the same vegetables.
“I like to show them that we grow the same things in America, we just use different spices,” he said during a visit to a farm.
As you survey the flat, lush fields surrounding the dry, rocky Army base, it is easy to see the similarities between this area and parts of northeast Mississippi. Rows of wheat, corn and vegetables are offset by fields in which farmers watch over herds of goats, sheep and cows. The animals are herded much as they were in biblical times, watched by children holding staffs.
The Iraqi women play an important role in farm work, spending most of their days harvesting feed for the animals. The grass is harvested in blocks from one end to the other, so that by the time they reach the opposite side, they can start over.
“I've watched the women work from the tower,” Smith said, “and they will work in the field from sunup to sundown and then go home and take care of the house and their families.”
The 155th BCT agriculture project, dubbed Amber Waves, is aimed at introducing new farming and animal care methods to the area, which relies heavily on crops as a source of income.
Two pounds of squash will yield a mere 15 cents at the market in Basrah, while male cattle will sell for more than $100.
Growing season is just beginning here, explained Capt. Jesse Cornelius of Palmetto, Miss., head of the project. “What we would consider spring is still winter here,” he said. “The temperatures have been in the 80s for weeks, and things are just now turning green.” In addition to farming, Cornelius, a Mississippi State University graduate, teaches agricultural courses at Nettleton High School, Nettleton, Miss.
Speaking to farmers through a translator, Cornelius told a group of six men that the 155th BCT will help them replace aid provided by the former Iraqi government.
“The farmers are going to have to organize and do some of these things themselves,” he said. “We are going to try and help you do that.”
To which one of the Iraqi farmers responded, “Your ideas are much appreciated. It is very good for my animals and my tribe's animals.”
The soldiers plan to help in other ways, such as building a bridge so farmers can herd their animals across the deep canal; offering a dip tank for the herds of animals to remove lice and insects; and clearing the banks of the canal to allow better water flow.
But the American soldiers say they might learn from the Iraqis as well. They recycle everything, using animal waste for compost and brush and trash for heating their outdoor ovens.
“If it is something they can use, they are going to use it,” said Sgt. Jacob Alexander of New Albany, Miss. “Nothing in this country goes to waste.”