By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 10, 2009
BAGHDAD -- Under the glare of a Humvee's headlights, Brad Blauser broke a sweat assembling a pediatric wheelchair as a small group of Iraqi soldiers observed quietly.
The idea was to train the Iraqis so that when the time came to distribute the wheelchairs, Blauser and the 20 or so U.S. soldiers who coordinated the giveaway could fade into the background as Iraqi troops presented 32 fully assembled wheelchairs to disabled children.
"We're trying to build rapport," said Staff Sgt. Craig Jackson, 34, of Pennsylvania, one of the squad leaders working with Blauser. "Show them that their government is trying to help its people."
But the mission in Fadhil, a predominantly Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad, showed quite the opposite. It raised questions that haunt U.S. troops as they prepare to pull out of Iraqi cities by June 30: When the Americans leave, how will the Iraqi forces behave? Will the billions of dollars and thousands of lives spent propping up and legitimizing the Iraqi government prove to have been a poor investment?
Thirty minutes into the assembly tutorial, the crowd of Iraqi soldiers thinned as curiosity gave way to boredom. Soon, Blauser, 43, found himself surrounded mainly by U.S. troops.
"What happened to all the people who were supposed to be helping put these together?" demanded Jackson, visibly irked. "We're not doing it."
But there was no time to prod the Iraqis into action; it was getting late. So after the first wheelchair was assembled, Blauser and the American soldiers unpacked the remaining 31 and put them together with little assistance from the Iraqis.
The story of how the boxed wheelchair parts arrived at that dark, dusty Iraqi army station parking lot begins in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when Blauser lost his corporate job. After spending three years oscillating between unemployment and underemployment, he jumped at the chance to become a warehouse hand at a U.S. military base in northern Iraq.
"It was either come here or fall apart," Blauser said.
When he arrived in Mosul in November 2004, one of thousands of contractors hired to support the United States' burgeoning war enterprise in Iraq, Blauser had never been overseas and knew nothing about the nonprofit world.
But one night in August 2005, a battalion surgeon at the base told Blauser about the scores of disabled children he was meeting during aid missions.
"The military couldn't offer long-term care," Blauser said. What if, he thought, "we could at least give them a wheelchair."
He spent the next few nights doing research about wheelchair charities. Reach Out and Care Wheels, a Montana nonprofit organization that distributes pediatric wheelchairs assembled by South Dakota prison inmates, agreed to provide some to Blauser for $200 apiece, significantly lower than the retail price of similar chairs. Blauser reached out to friends, relatives and strangers online, seeking funds. By the end of 2005, he had raised $20,000 -- enough for 100 pediatric chairs to distribute in a country where they are a rarity.
"In this culture, children with disabilities are a curse from God, so you leave the children in the house, preferably in the back room," Blauser said. "When the parents get the wheelchairs, they say: 'To hell with this curse mentality. I'm going to take them to the market.' "
Blauser had raised an additional $56,000 by the end of 2006, including a $34,000 donation from his employer. The inmates in South Dakota could barely keep up. As of May 2007, as the U.S. troop "surge" was getting underway, Blauser had 100 wheelchairs ready for shipment.
By that time, Blauser had been promoted to a management position, making $170,000, nearly double his initial salary in Iraq.
By the time CNN did a report on the project in February 2008, Blauser's organization, Wheelchairs for Iraqi Kids, had distributed more than 230 wheelchairs. The piece triggered a flood of e-mails, donations and queries from people who wanted to get involved.
The donors included Ben Werdegar, an 11-year-old in Woodside, Calif., who raised $10,000 by playing his guitar at outdoor venues and who said he intends to keep at it until he brings in $1 million.
That Feb. 17, Blauser received an unexpected congratulatory note.
"Your initiative has proven to be a wonderful idea and you clearly have been doing a superb job turning that idea into reality," Gen. David H. Petraeus, then the top U.S. general in Iraq, wrote.
A few weeks later, when Blauser's relationship with his employer soured, he decided he had had enough of the contractor world. He said he sent an e-mail to Petraeus, who arranged to keep him living on bases, on the military's dime, under the auspices of an unpaid, nominal job with another defense contractor.
Blauser began thinking more ambitiously, realizing that his days as an unpaid humanitarian worker were numbered as the U.S. footprint in Iraq continued to shrink under a withdrawal timetable. Earlier this year, he put together a plan proposing that the Iraqi Health Ministry invest $20 million to build a wheelchair factory where dozens of newly employed workers would assemble 50,000 wheelchairs in five years. He presented it to the top U.S. military surgeon in Iraq, who works closely with the ministry. The minister politely declined.
The pediatric wheelchairs distributed in Fadhil were part of the last shipment Blauser had. Having spent the last year unemployed, he has burned through half of his personal savings.
"We're out of money and out of wheelchairs," Blauser said. "There's nothing left."
Fadhil was chosen as the distribution point for a good reason. Last month, Iraqi soldiers deployed to the area, backed by U.S. forces, were drawn into an intense, hours-long fight prompted by the detention of a local leader. In the aftermath of the battle, it was time to build bridges.
Families with disabled children started arriving at a Fadhil clinic hours before two Iraqi army trucks pulled into the parking lot with the wheelchairs.
Prompted by the Americans, Alaa Dagher, head of the local council, gave a speech in the clinic's lobby.
"We are giving these wheelchairs to kids who got injured," he said. "We will help you lots in the future."
He then left, as did the Iraqi soldiers.
Thirty-two families waited in line for hours as Blauser and U.S. troops painstakingly adjusted each wheelchair to fit each child.
Bushra Efleye Hassan, 43, marveled as two American soldiers tweaked the headrest of her daughter's chair.
Her daughter, Fatima Abdul Karim, 5, has barely left the house since she was injured in late 2003 during the chaos that erupted when a car bomb exploded.
"I dropped her," Hassan said quietly. "She was in my arms, and I dropped her. She's never going to walk again."
When Blauser began fitting the first child, he realized that the wheelchair was missing the custom-made tool that allows parents to adjust the chair as the child grows. He soon discovered that all the chairs were missing the critical part.
The U.S. officer in charge of the event called the Iraqi soldiers and questioned them. Minutes later, the Iraqis walked in with 11 of the 32 tools. They had no explanation for the fate of the rest or for a wheelchair that they didn't deliver.
"Iraqis enjoy some sense of civility with us here," Blauser said later. "It's time for the Iraqis to step up. If they don't, it'll be one hell of a mess when troops leave. Honestly, I don't see how the Iraqi army can gain credibility when they have petty thieves stealing from families of disabled children in their ranks."
Using the tools they had, the American soldiers improvised and spent several hours adjusting the chairs, which the Iraqi parents won't be able to do easily as their children grow.