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April 13, 2010

Soldier from Picher helps Kirkuk residents rebuild

PICHER, Okla - — Drip irrigation versus flood irrigation.

The benefits of hoop houses.

Micro-grants for small farmers.

It’s a far cry from the blood-and-mud training given to U.S. Army soldiers. But for a former resident of Picher, Okla., who recently commanded soldiers in Iraq, it was all in the line of duty.

Kirkuk Province is an oil-rich region, but to the people who have farmed there for centuries, that oil means less than water.

“Kirkuk Province is typically one of the greenest areas of Iraq,” said Lt. Col. Hugh McNeely, formerly of Picher. But several years of drought threatened the agricultural underpinnings of that region’s economy, destabilizing the area and putting residents at risk of joining the insurgency.

McNeely was in Iraq from December 2008 through December 2009. Since returning, he has been stationed at Fort Hood, Texas.

“One of the biggest drivers of instability was this drought,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday from Fort Hood. “Even local water for drinking was becoming something of a problem. It is a factor that you have to try to negate because otherwise it could be a tool for the insurgency.”

That area, which normally receives 12 inches of rain a year, was getting just a fraction of that.

“Last year, I think they got 5 (inches),” said McNeely, deputy commander of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division.

Farming help

Drip irrigation conserves 30 percent more water than flooding fields, McNeely said. His soldiers were tasked with helping residents of Kirkuk, who had farmed for generations, learn new methods that conserve water. For example, hoop houses, a type of greenhouse, were beneficial because they didn’t lose water to evaporation and plants could be grown in them year-round.

The 2nd Brigade Combat Team awarded $5,000 in the form of micro-grants to help local farmers build hoop houses.

McNeely and his soldiers also helped negotiate water releases from Dokan Dam for farmers during the growing season, which meant wading through long-standing political tensions in Iraq between Kurds and Arabs.

“It’s not what you typically think of as Army operations,” acknowledged McNeely, 48.

Education was another tool that McNeely’s troops used to build support for U.S. troops and the emerging Iraqi government, and to stabilize the region. In those instances, they hired local Iraqi contractors to lead the work, which also helped increase stability.

“They had a 28 percent unemployment rate when we got there,” McNeely said.

Contrast

For McNeely, rebuilding Iraq was taking place as he read about the dismantling of his own hometown. He noted that some of his family members were among those who were bought out because of instability brought about by years of lead and zinc mining in the Picher area.

During the year he was in Iraq, McNeely also saw the transfer of power, with Iraqi forces taking responsibility for putting down the insurgency and U.S. troops acting in a support role.

“Right now, the Iraqi government has sovereignty for the defense, and we are in a support role,” he said. “The insurgency is on its way out, in my opinion.”

Andy Ostmeyer is the metro editor for The Joplin Globe.

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