News: Every Soldier a diplomat in Iraq
That "every Soldier is a diplomat" is particularly true for members of the 640th Quartermaster Company.
A unit from the U.S. Virgin Islands National Guard, the 640th is based out of St. Thomas and arrived in December to southern Iraq. They are serving a year-long deployment that includes nurturing a working relationship with local residents of villages surrounding two large coalition bases.
"Our main mission is to maintain the raw water pumps and canal waterways that supply water to camps Cedar and Adder," said Sgt. 1st Class Kelvin Bailey, who is leading the group of approximately 15 Soldiers deployed with the 640th.
The water pumps feed primarily out of the Euphrates River and are located on land owned and inhabited by local residents.
Consequently, the daily operation of the pumps depends on the relationship that the troops develop with the locals.
"We deal with them; they tell us what they need and we bring it the next day," said Sgt. Elvy Rogers, a gunner with the 640th.
"Sometimes we even bring them extra stuff like soap, shampoo, and batteries."
Similarly, the local residents, treat the Soldiers like friends, often offering them fruits and freshly caught fish.
The relationship is valuable because the locals can also provide the Soldiers with vital information that can help the area maintain its reputation as one of the safest for coalition troops.
"I thought there would be more fire, but I haven't shot anybody since we got over here," said Spc. Michael Joseph, a gunner with the 640th. "That's a good thing."
Rare as incidents are, they highlight the need for stronger relationships with the surrounding communities. The Soldiers with the 640th seem particularly adept for the mission given their experiences in the military and in the civilian world.
Take for example Spc. Jonelle Smith, a driver with the 640th. The unit's youngest Soldier at 23, she served on a peacekeeping mission to Haiti with several members of the unit just before coming to Iraq.
Similarly, Sgt. Orville Colbourne, a 54-year-old mechanic who has 22 years in the military, has served several humanitarian missions including some to Venezuela and Honduras.
Moreover, most of the troops are involved in the service sector at home. Bailey, for example, is the captain of a small boat fleet that carries tourists between St. Thomas and the British Virgin Islands.
These experiences have required that the troops develop people skills that come in handy when dealing with the local civilians.
The 640th also runs a supply yard in Cedar and provides assistance to the local dining facility. The troops are expected home by November.