Monday, July 28, 2003
A world away, the Salernos' son-in-law, Lt. Col. Christopher Conlin, is stationed in Najaf, Iraq, as commander of the First Battalion, Seventh Marines. Along with the U.S. Army, his unit is currently involved in Backpacks for Iraq, a program that donates backpacks containing school supplies to Iraqi children.
Meanwhile, at the military base of Twentynine Palms, Calif., their daughter, Ava Marie Salerno Conlin, cares for two young daughters while awaiting her husband's September return. A former physician in the U.S. Navy, Ava heads Backpacks for Iraq at Twentynine Palms, gathering and assembling the supplies before shipping them to Iraq.
Approximately 200,000 children attend school in the southern Iraqi province of An Najaf. The goal of Backpacks for Iraq is to supply every child before school begins in September, an ambitious feat that requires much effort, assistance and, yes, backpacks.
"They've sent over a couple hundred backpacks already," said Mary, "but it's hard because they live in a military base in the desert. There's really nothing there ... except Wal-Mart."
Thus, the Salernos are doing everything possible to help. With a little extra time and a lot of spare change, they've purchased dozens of backpacks from stores and garage sales. Two weeks ago, they shipped 68 bags to Twentynine Palms so Ava could fill them with such supplies as pencils, pens, paper, erasers and crayons.
"It's important to give each child a backpack," said Mary, noting that Iraqi children "have nothing."
"Some of the schools are in pretty bad condition," added Ed. The Salernos get this information from a reliable source, their son-in-law. Christopher's unit, which fought in the war, is now stabilizing and restoring hospitals, schools, electricity and water supplies throughout southern Iraq.
Contrary to the often-documented image of disgruntled American troops, Christopher's unit is adjusting successfully, according to Mary.
"They are happy there ... they get along well with the (Iraqi) people," she said. "My son-in-law had orders to return, but he didn't want to leave because he built a good rapport with the people. They trusted him and if he left, they'd have to revamp with someone else."
Their relationship with children is especially meaningful.
"(Christopher) went to the schools and seeing the little girls made him miss his daughters," said Mary. "It seems like the kids really like the Marines, handing them flowers."
A positive relationship with Iraqi children is important, she noted.
"I guess their feeling is they need to have the children see that Americans are good people. To get that country where it should be, you need to build up confidence with the younger generation."
Marines aren't the only ones helping Iraqi children. Their wives play a significant role in Backpacks for Iraq.
"This is mainly something that the women back on the base are doing. Not only does it help the kids in Iraq, but it helps the women get involved," Mary said.
Of course, wives like Ava Conlin receive enthusiastic support from their parents, thousands of miles away. As the only Indiana residents participating in this program, the Salernos have attempted to rouse community involvement.
They contacted a few Indiana schools, which expressed interest but were helpless during the summer hiatus. They also bargained with retail stores, managing to get discounts as low as $2.25 per backpack, but unable to obtain donations.
"It's an awkward time. People are on vacation," said Mary, reflecting on the mild community response. "Everyone thinks it's such a great idea, but nobody has done much more than that."
Nonetheless, the Salernos are unfazed. They continue to peruse the backpack aisle, looking for that good deal.
When school starts, American troops will distribute the backpacks with a big presentation, promoting their program to the world. Granted it is uncertain every child in An Najaf will receive their bag of supplies, but the Salernos respect the effort.
"The people who are doing it now eventually will come home, and it probably won't continue too far beyond this year. And if they get the government in there, the government can supply the kids." said Ed. "But for now ..."
"It's just to get them started," finished Mary.
If you would like to participate in Backpacks for Iraq, send backpacks or donations to Ed and Mary Alice Salerno at 445 N. Third Street, Indiana, PA 15701. New backpacks are preferred, but if they have been used, they should be in good condition, of a primary color and without any advertisement or logo.
Indiana Printing & Publishing Co.