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Hearts, Minds, Work and Play

By Erik Skindrud, regional editor

U.S. Army Master Sgt. Ronnie Reece (left), Iraqi school children, the school's headmaster, and U.S. Army Sgt. Lucas Murray (right) pose for a photo after completing work on the playground at the Al Shrooq Primary and Secondary School in Iraq.

Rhode Island Landscape Architect and National Guardsman put his skills to work in central Iraq.

Most days, Luke Murray negotiates nothing more hazardous than rush-hour traffic in Boston. In May of 2005, however, the Rhode Island native deployed for a year's tour inside the Sunni Triangle that surrounds Baghdad, Iraq.

Serving with the 3rd Battalion, 172nd Infantry Regiment, the City of Boston Landscape Architect spent the time with the 48th Brigade combat team, delivering supplies across the region's hazardous highways.

Early in the tour Sgt. Murray contacted play equipment manufacturer Big Toys after hearing about a donated playground installed at the Al Zuhor School for Girls in Basra, Iraq. Murray wanted to supervise the installation of another playground where it would be put to good use. After months of phone calls, emails and red tape, Murray secured another Big Toys play structure and completed the installation at the Al Shrooq primary and secondary school in Ibraham Jafi, Iraq. The job was a remarkable cooperative effort between local children, soldiers (who had to remain armed throughout the job) and a local contractor, who moved gravel for the project for just $20. The job was finished in April, shortly before the Landscape Architect returned home in May.

Sgt. Murray is pleased to share the following account with LASN readers. A photo essay on the project can be seen at the Department of Defense's Defend America web site:

April 16th – We gathered together a mix of Civil Affairs and infantry support teams to secure the project site as we worked. We left bright and early and arrived on site to find several teenagers starting to take down the wall where we needed to access the site. Within an hour we had the truck downloaded and Spc. Carter and I were on our way to laying out the site. Throughout the course of the day we managed to dig footings with the help of local children. We set the first deck and several poles despite the scorching heat.

April 17th – We returned to Ibraham Jafi to find many of the kids who worked with us the day before ready and willing to work. We marked their hands to insure that they would eventually be rewarded for their work efforts. We managed to get the first main deck concreted in and were working on the second set of decks when it started pouring rain and hail. Yes, I said hail. Hail came down in the size of gum balls and the rain filled the playground site with enough water to swim in. Needless to say our work efforts were halted and a very sweaty, wet and tired crew returned to our base in Taji.

April 18th – With a sunny start we returned to the site once again with wet boots and dirty uniforms to start bailing out the footing holes and draining the site. The kids worked hard to build a drain channel and within an hour the whole site was still very muddy, but water free. We drove on to build the rest of the structure. After installing two decks, monkey bars, a slide, multiple climbers and various accessories we finished the day with what looked like a play structure.

April 19th – We awoke with sore legs and backs even earlier than normal to load up several trailers with soccer balls, t-shirts, sleep mats and linens and various other items for distribution to the kids who worked so hard on the project. We arrived at the site with the intention of spreading all of the gravel throughout the site by 13:00 that day. Yet, our hopes seemed to be dashed as we worked tirelessly to move the 60 cubic meters of stone throughout the site using only old olive oil cans and a stretcher. Then something amazing happened. Major Pugh managed to chase down a local contractor driving by with an excavator. We offered him $20 to move the gravel at our site and he accepted. Soon the huge machine was moving tons of gravel with little effort and by 13:00 the project site was complete. We finished the day by distributing toys, soccer balls, shirts, and all kinds of good stuff to the workers and their families. It was a huge success and as soon as we opened the flood gates there were kids all over the structure playing. I even took a ride on the new slide. It's hard to express how successful (and satisfying) the project ended up being.

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December 14, 2019, 8:03 am PDT

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