Sun, Jul. 04, 2004
A tug on heartstrings leads area reservist to help kids stay in school
By KAREN UHLENHUTH
The Kansas City Star
Dave McCorkle wanted nothing to do with the boy in the plum-colored shirt that day a year ago in Mosul, Iraq.
McCorkle and a few other guys in the Army's 318th Psychological Operations Company had stopped at a busy area known as University Street to gauge the local people's frustrations over their lack of fuel. The moment McCorkle parked in the street, the boy came out of nowhere and grabbed his hand.
“Like a vise grip,” McCorkle remembers. “I tried to shake him loose, but he wouldn't let me go.”
McCorkle did finally unfasten the boy from his arm, but he couldn't stop thinking about him. The next time he went to University Street — its profusion of peddlers selling chicken and soda pop were popular with McCorkle's unit — he searched for the boy.
“We'd go down there frequently, and I'd look for him and he'd be there,” McCorkle said, seated at a little square kitchen table in his home near Lone Jack, about 25 miles east of downtown. “He'd run up to me, and I'd give him a gift, a package of cookies or some candy.”
It didn't seem right that an 8-year-old boy was not in school, walking the streets nearly every day, selling cigarettes or whatever. McCorkle learned that the boy's name was Yahia and that the boy's father had died of cancer when Yahia was 3 months old. Arabic cultural practice forbade the boy's widowed mother from leaving home to support the family. So it fell to Yahia (YA hya) and an older brother to support the family of nine as best they could.
A boy without a father. A father without his two boys and his wife. Something clicked in McCorkle's head.
“I wanted to help this boy,” he said.
He sent the unit's interpreter to seek out the boy's mother and make her an offer. When the interpreter told her that the American soldier would pay her $50 a month — comparable to many salaries in Iraq — if she would enroll Yahia in school, “she broke into tears,” McCorkle said. “I think she realized it would give her son a chance.”
After some hard negotiations with the school, which resisted re-enrolling Yahia because he'd been gone for a couple of years, the boy traded in cigarette sales for studies. McCorkle sent checks to Yahia's mother. And his idea has mushroomed into a locally based effort to help more Iraqi school children.
“I got such a good feeling helping this boy,” he said. “I thought, ‘What if I'd help 100, or 200?' ”
Something precious wasted
That's the idea behind American Aid to the Children of Nineveh. With the help of a couple of other soldiers who were stationed with him in the northern Iraqi province of Nineveh, McCorkle founded the organization last October.
For $60 a month, a sponsor can provide for a family's necessities, making it possible for a child to get off the street and into school. Only children who are fatherless or orphaned are matched with sponsors.
McCorkle raised the monthly donation by $10 to pay the costs of the money transfers and three Iraqi staffers.
“Our organization is, at base, about education and improving access,” he said.
So far, about 25 people, many of them members of the military currently serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, are sponsoring Iraqi children through McCorkle's initiative.
“I fell in love with all the kids is what happened,” McCorkle said as he pulled favorite photos from a stack of snapshots a couple of inches thick. During 14 months in Iraq, he clicked his way through one disposable camera after another, unable to stop photographing the children of Iraq.
McCorkle held up a picture of a couple dozen children, lined up like a row of books — squirming books — behind a low stone wall. Their faces reflected nothing of the warfare or chaos nearby.
“How could you not be affected by that?”
He flashed a picture of Yahia in the prominently stained plum-colored knit shirt that he wore nearly every day. Iraqi children generally have only one outfit, McCorkle said.
“Isn't he cute? Everybody tells me he's a typical … child. But he's cute to me.”
He pulled out an index card and recited the facts culled from a UNICEF Web site. Thirty-nine percent of children in the Iraqi countryside do not attend elementary school. Ditto for 16 percent of children in the cities. Fifty percent of Iraqi boys and 60 percent of girls don't attend high school.
“Something precious is being wasted,” McCorkle said. “They're smarter than a lot of the soldiers I was with. It seems such a waste for these children not to have a future.”
A war zone transformation
McCorkle had no particular interest in ensuring Iraq's future when he went there in February of 2003. Quite the opposite, in fact. Sept. 11, 2001, was the day he decided to rejoin the U.S. Army Reserve, 23 years after he completed three years at a base in Germany. They were followed by three years as a reservist.
In a hotel in Dallas, where he happened to be on a sales trip for IBM the day the terrorists attacked, he watched the awful pictures broadcast from New York City, Washington, D.C., and a field in Pennsylvania.
It was a pivotal moment.
“I felt so angry and powerless. There was nothing I could do but watch.”
But McCorkle had a plan. He would lose enough of his 350 pounds to qualify for the Reserve, and he'd go to the Middle East and hurt those people who had hurt us. Iraq has never been implicated in the 9/11 attack, but McCorkle didn't bother with such distinctions at the time.
“To me, it was just Muslims and Arabs. It was all interrelated,” he said. “The whole idea was payback. I was full of anger.”
He arrived in northern Iraq 17 months later and 125 pounds lighter, as part of the 318th Psychological Operations Unit. It's charged with, among other things, gathering and disseminating information.
Once there, McCorkle found that hating those people wasn't quite as easy as he'd imagined. The northern region where he was stationed is a stew of Muslims and Christians, Kurds, Arabs and Turks.
“They'd invite us into their homes and gather food from their neighbors,” McCorkle recalled. “They were tremendously hospitable. Most of them are people of peace.” McCorkle's image of Iraqis firing rocket-propelled grenades and burning American Humvees disintegrated.
“When I got there, I learned to think of those people as individuals, not as a group. I came back a different person. I came back a humanitarian.”
Since he returned in March to his 20 acres outside Lone Jack, McCorkle, 46, has resumed his responsibilities as a salesman for IBM and as a family man. A crew of men with backhoes and trucks were delivering a load of gravel to his back yard one afternoon in early June. McCorkle had decided to give his sons, 10-year-old Joseph and 6-year-old Kevin, a little gift — an in-ground swimming pool.
“I'm paying my kids for not being home for 14 months. What I did was very hard on my family. I'm kind of sad I put them through that. I'm trying to make up.”
Indeed, they didn't think much of his decision to go to war.
Maureen McCorkle wasn't sure why her husband would volunteer to rip a hole in his family's life by leaving for a war zone, but she knew it would be pointless to object.
“He decides he's going to do something, and he doesn't let go easily,” she said. “I didn't want to be resented for saying, ‘No, you can't go,' so he went.”
She was most concerned about how her sons would interpret their father's absence.
“I didn't want them to feel they'd been abandoned. It was hard for them to understand, especially my little one. He was 5 when Dave left. It was hard for them to grasp: ‘Why'd he go, and why was it so important?' ”
Maureen has a better understanding of what drew her husband to the little boy in the plum-colored shirt and why he channeled his energies into establishing a structure to help the children of Iraq.
“Early on he felt he was making a difference. They were on missions and so forth,” Maureen said.
But then there came a lull when he wasn't doing anything that felt purposeful. Her husband was pained at being away from his family and may have felt it even more acutely as he wondered, “What am I doing over here?” Maureen said.
McCorkle says there was something therapeutic in his budding relationship with Yahia and in his decision to create an avenue for other Americans to become similarly involved.
“Maybe I needed some love,” he said. “Some of that emptiness I probably filled by helping this boy. It was a very emotional thing to me. The more I helped, the more bonding there was. I loved my family, but they were a world away.”
In his home office, McCorkle spends a lot of time developing his organization. His employer, IBM, has agreed to add American Aid to the Children of Nineveh to the approximately 3,000 nonprofits that are part of the company's employee charitable contribution campaign. It's a payroll deduction option that works very much like United Way, except that employees propose the charities to be listed.
“What Dave did is really unique,” said Bill Macnamara, who runs the company's charitable campaign. “He's an incredible guy. We're happy to help.”
So far, McCorkle's sponsors have come largely from the military community. Considering the small salaries paid to many of them, McCorkle said, $60 a month “is a lot of money. These people are my heroes. You hear about the prison thing, and it's just that I see the opposite side of the coin.”
Kurt Hoffman, who lives near Gardner, read about the project on a Web site and was attracted by McCorkle establishing the organization while serving in the military. He signed right up.
“Being ex-military myself in the Vietnam era, it struck me as a really nifty thing,” he said. Then, too, he wanted to make a point to the 11-year-old boy with whom he volunteers as a Big Brother. The boy has fewer opportunities than many children, and Hoffman wanted him to see “someone even lower in the food chain than he is.”
McCorkle also is trying to expand his initiative. He and a couple of partners in the U.S., along with three Iraqi paid representatives, are working with Concern for Kids to establish a safehouse/orphanage near Mosul. Concern for Kids is an organization that tries to improve the lives of children in northern Iraq and neighboring countries.
In addition, the partners want to create a relationship between U.S. schools and those in Iraq, which tend to be severely under-resourced. McCorkle was struck by the elation of an Iraqi school principal when McCorkle handed him three soccer balls one day. “He was like, ‘You've given us our sports program!' ”
Several interested Iraqi schools have been identified, said James Harrelson of St. Joseph, who served in Iraq with McCorkle and is a partner in the aid organization. “All we need are schools in the U.S.”
For $125 a month, a sponsoring school can provide an Iraqi school with paper and pens, textbooks and other classroom fundamentals. One school in Austin, Texas, just sent McCorkle a check to cover about a year's obligation.
“When the coalition repairs schools, they're talking about actual walls and blackboards,” Harrelson said. “Right now most of the schools are empty shells.”
And too many kids don't see the inside of a classroom, he noted.
“In the smaller villages, as young as 5 years old, they were out in the field. No education. No chance at a future... I talked to many of these kids, asked them what their goals were, and 95 percent of the time their dream was just to go to school.”
It doesn't take all that much to turn around the life of an Iraqi child, McCorkle said. And as he discovered first-hand, turning around a child's life can turn around one's own life.
To reach Karen Uhlenhuth, call (816) 234-4783 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
American Aid for Children of Nineveh
Mission: To ensure Iraqi children stay in school
Based in: Lone Jack
How to help: Sponsor a child or convince your school to become partners with an Iraqi school.
Sponsors receive a letter and a photo every three months.
Cost: $60 a month to sponsor a child, $125 a month to partner with a school. Donations are tax-deductible.
For more information: Call (816) 566-0128 or check out the Web site at www.iraqkids.org.