Guard aids Iraqi farming community

The Associated PressMay 2, 2004 

WILMINGTON -- N.C. National Guardsmen are helping a rural community in Iraq rebuild, and they're also building ties to a place some say reminds them of home.

Balad Ruz is a farming community of 80,000 to 90,000 people about 12 miles from the Iranian border. Many of its residents are farmers.

"They have the same concerns about whether their tractor is running," said Capt. Matt Stapleton of the Wilmington-based Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 120th Infantry Regiment. "It's not an urban place like Fallujah. The part of Iraq that we're in is pretty positive."

Guardsmen are helping to rebuild schools and mosques and protect the town, while also seizing weapons caches and stopping potential threats.

"We have a pretty regular presence. We're getting to know the people real well," said Stapleton, a teacher at New Hanover High School.

Spc. Alfred Hacker, a legal specialist, goes into Balad Ruz every week to help Iraqis file claims against Americans for damages since their arrival.

"It's mostly vehicles getting hit in convoys," Hacker said. "The streets are real narrow and packed."

Hacker, a senior at UNC- Wilmington when his unit, part of the 30th Heavy Separate Brigade, was activated, said most Iraqis have been polite and appreciative.

The soldiers stay in touch with their families through e-mail and telephone while their camp, Camp Caldwell, slowly evolves into a place where soldiers can get hot, running water and a couple of warm meals a day.

The brigade has been on more than 2,000 combat patrols and 241 joint patrols with Iraqi security forces. It also has captured 40 people during border missions and found 87 weapons caches.

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