CENTRAL COMMAND AREA OF OPERATIONS -- Like hope, smiles are an unlimited commodity among children. More lacking though, especially in the east African nation of Djibouti recently visited by the 22d Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), are the facilities and supplies to nurture a child's hope for a bright future.
In an effort to bring a ray of hope to the lives of children in one of Djibouti's remote villages, the engineers from MEU Service Support Group 22 spent a week hard at work to ensure schoolchildren in La Hassa village have the tools necessary for an education and a shot at a better life.
"By rebuilding La Hassa's main schoolhouse, we hope a new interest is sparked and word spreads quickly throughout the area that the children now have a new facility to expand their education," said Staff Sgt. Robert M. Mathes, of Memphis, Tennessee, the MSSG-22 engineer platoon sergeant.
According to the engineer platoon commander, Capt. Anthony R. Mitchell II, of Westfield, New Jersey, La Hassa was chosen based on a list of priorities given to the MEU by local government officials who were asked where the MEU could provide a helping hand.
The engineering civil affairs project (Engineer CAP) took five days and encompassed a complete renovation of the schoolhouse.
"We removed and repaired the roof and top layers of block, built new steps, replaced the door and repaired windows, installed interior lights, painted, and completed stucco work on the building's interior and exterior," said Mitchell.
In a country with few resources, one item in abundance is sunlight. That knowledge led to perhaps the most innovative renovation on the schoolhouse, a solar panel to power the school's new lighting system.
The MSSG-22 engineer platoon didn't accomplish this task alone. Marines from the combat engineer platoon of the 2d Battalion, 6th Marines, the MEU's ground combat element, joined the MSSG platoon in their endeavor. While the rest of their platoon supported operations elsewhere in the country, the engineers in Sgt. Robert J. Howard's squad assisted in the engineering CAP.
"I was responsible for helping with ideas and planning, to take a task and make sure it gets done," said Howard, of Hamilton, Ohio. "The project itself was difficult. There were some time-consuming events, but we did okay."
One of the engineers in Howard's squad, Cpl. Jerome A. Glover, of Summerville, South Carolina, was responsible for most of the project's masonry work and echoed a sentiment common among all the engineers.
"The heat was like an eight-letter word with no vowels," said Glover. "It made no sense. A 140-degree heat index makes just about everything difficult."
Despite the stifling heat, the Marines pushed hard to complete their mission, working as many as 19 hours every day.
"Time was against us and the heat was not on our side," said Mathes, "but we finished ahead of schedule with no injuries or heat casualties."
When the renovations were complete, the engineers added a special addition straight from the United States. Since leaving Camp Lejeune in late February, the MEU has carried with it a crate of school supplies donated by Morehead City Primary School in Morehead City, North Carolina for dispersion to less fortunate kids in other countries.
Lance Cpl. Matthew T. Holland, of West Helena, Arkansas, an MSSG 22 engineer, helped distribute the supplies to the school.
"The biggest and longest lasting benefit of the engineer CAP is that we improved the education facility and gave them school supplies they had probably never seen before," said Holland. "It is one of the best feelings I have ever felt just knowing we improved somebody's life."
For more information on the 22d MEU (SOC), visit the unit's website at www.22meu.usmc.mil.