By Staff Sgt. Michel Sauret
CAMP VICTORY, Iraq – On Saturday afternoons, a fenced-in patch of land outside Camp Victory becomes a ground for children to play and participate in their community.
Young girl scouts sit around a table to decorate arts and crafts. Some of their eyes barely make it over the tabletop as service members show them how to paint with a brush. The boy scouts hurl dodge balls at one another, while others learn how to build a fire using just twigs.
It looks like all fun and games, but there is much at stake for these young Iraqis.
“You can look around and, if nothing else, you are doing something good here because you are creating a positive impact for Iraqi families and the children,” said Lt. Cmdr. Eric Fretz, who is helping bring the scouting program back to life after almost two decades of neglect in Iraq.
“We can work together and create this great program for these kids, and then they get all kinds of good life skills out of it,” added Fretz, who is a Troop 8 Assistant Scoutmaster from Ann Arbor, Mich.
The scouting movement was revitalized in 2004 by the Green Zone Council, which was formed by a group of Coalition forces in Baghdad who saw value in having Iraqi children involved with their communities. Fretz learned about the council in March and wanted to help out, but logistically it was impossible for him to participate on a regular basis because Baghdad is a 30-minute convoy ride from Camp Victory, which is where Fretz is stationed.
Though disheartened, Fretz didn’t want to give up.
“It’s kind of a big deal for me. I was a scout from the lowest level of cub scouts since I was a youth, all the way to Eagle Scout. And when you get your Eagle Scout, you basically get what is called the Eagle Charge, which is to give back to scouting for the rest of your life,” he said.
Committed, Fretz and other passionate service members decided to start their own Victory Base Council, which brings Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen together with schoolchildren from areas in southern Baghdad. The group began with just a few dedicated volunteers, plus a few other service members who helped out whenever possible.
“I was like the lens that focused everybody else’s energies, so you know, yeah, the lens is important, but without those thousands beams of light of those other people’s energy to focus, I’ve got nothing,” said Fretz, a signal officer with Multi-National Corps – Iraq.
Now, the council has grown to nearly 200 members with more than 120 volunteers on Victory Base Complex. More than 60 of those members are active on a monthly basis.
“After I went out to scout the first time, I was hooked. I am not sure who gets more out of the scouting activities, me or the kids,” agreed 1st Lt. Stephanie Flowers, Champagne, Ill., a member of the 11th Signal Brigade, which provides strategic communications services units throughout Multi-National Division - Center.
As much fun as the adults are having with the program, they all understand who the true focus is.
“That’s where we’re going to rebuild Iraq, is with the children. It’s with the children where you’re going to start,” said Sgt. 1st Class Nevin Gordner, a scout master from Hughesville, Pa., and member of the 398th Command Sustainment Support Battalion.
The service members volunteer their time every Saturday to teach up to 80 children valuable scouting lessons and new sport activities. Often the kids will outnumber the adults, but the volunteer service members look forward to that.
“I love working with children, and I have many wonderful memories from the 12 years I was a Girl Scout when I was growing up. I'd like to see these children grow up with wonderful memories and learn new skills,” said Staff Sgt. Lani Yearicks, of Gwinn, Mich., a member of the 10th Mountain Division Band.
As part of the program the volunteers organize at least one scout craft, a team-building exercise and rotate between sports, including soccer, football, ultimate Frisbee and even archery.
“They don’t really have the same setup as we do in terms of handbooks and whatnot,” Fretz said. “We bring in the American knowledge of scouting and how we do things, and we blend that with the Iraqi ideas … So we create sort of a hybrid program.”
Iraq had a scouting program up until the 1980s, but the World Organization Scouting Movement decertified the program after they realized Saddam Hussein was using it to train children as paramilitary youths.
“Perhaps the term, ‘Hitler Youth’ is too strong, but it was something like that,” Fretz said.
For roughly 20 years following decertification, the scouting movement simply didn’t exist in Iraq. Now, it’s back to the beginning stages of a project; a project that is steadily moving forward. The council members are also working with scouting adults so they may continue the project once Coalition forces withdraw from the country.
“I think my biggest mission for the next eight months is probably to get the Iraqi adults more involved so that they’re actually teaching and running the program,” said Maj. Cheryl Hanke, a scout pack leader from St. Louis, who will replace Fretz when he redeploys soon.
It took several months of multiple meetings and socializing and trust building with Iraqi leaders and schoolteachers before the council began working. Leaders then needed to find a site, which happened to be a junkyard once filled with tires and scrap metal.
When an Iraqi counterpart told Fretz this place would become their scout camp one day, Fretz originally scoffed. Now, he says he’s astounded by everyone’s collaboration to make scouting a possibility.
“If you told me that I had to sacrifice five years off my life in order to preserve what we’ve done here, I would do it in a heartbeat. It’s that important to me,” Fretz said.
To support this scouting program in southern Baghdad, please visit: http://www.victorybasecouncil.org