An empty dirt lot transformed into a childrenâ€™s paradise when the Joint Area Support Group – Centralâ€™s Directorate of Public Works completed a playground at the 215 Apartments in Baghdadâ€™s International Zone.
The new playground, equipped with play sets, swings, monkey bars and even a fountain, filled the need for a safe playing environment for the apartment complexes.
â€œThere are about four-to-five hundred kids that go to the school right down the way,â€ said Air Force Capt. Michelle Sterling, project manager. â€œItâ€™s colorful, itâ€™s safe, youâ€™ve got equipment and you just see the kids, theyâ€™re coming against the fence â€˜when is it going to be open, when is it going to be ready?â€™â€
Sterling said the combination of construction projects that encompass the apartments and the traffic that passes through them on a daily basis made the area an unsafe place for the children to play after school.
â€œThis was something we were able to do to fill an immediate need in a relatively short period of time,â€ said Sterling.
But what is the price of building a playground in the developing areas of Baghdadâ€™s â€œGreen Zone?â€ If you are the American taxpayer, the answer is zilch, nada, nothing.
â€œThe Iraqi government came to us and said, â€˜Hereâ€™s this money, we need a playground, weâ€™d like you to do this project for us,â€™â€ said Sterling.
While this was Sterlingâ€™s first project for DPW since arriving in the IZ two months ago, it is hardly her first foray into construction. Sterling is a civil engineer and came to the JASG-C from Lingham Air Force Base, Va., where she oversaw operations in maintenance and repair across about 16 Air Force bases.
â€œMy whole background is being a civil engineer, doing construction projects, so this is right up my alley,â€ she said.
Sterling also was in Iraq during 2003-2004, where she helped to build the major Air Force bases in the country.
â€œWhen we were first coming in, our main push was to build main operating bases,â€ she said. â€œThatâ€™s not our push anymore, now weâ€™re looking at projects that are going to benefit the Iraqi people. Theyâ€™re going to be here after we leave; itâ€™s going to help them re-establish their communities.â€
But with this extensive background in construction and engineering, Sterling said that this seemingly simple playground project was anything but.
â€œReally this project, for various reasons, mostly to do with supplies and getting the workers badged and into the IZ, itâ€™s taken a lot longer than initially anticipated,â€ she said. â€œIt was alternately very satisfying and frustrating, as most construction projects are. Itâ€™s satisfying in the fact that youâ€™re building a playground, youâ€™re creating a safe area for the kids to go and to play. Before we went in there and started building the playground, the area was really just a big pile of dirt. Weâ€™re cleaning it up, creating a sense of community, creating a place for people to gather and watch their kids play, so that part was very satisfying,â€ said Sterling.
â€œThe frustrating part is when parts get delayed in the port, and you canâ€™t get transport and you canâ€™t get workers in; when all of the sudden you thought you had permission to tap into a utility and now you donâ€™t. But those are things that happen on every construction project,â€ she said.
Overseeing the day-to-day operations fell to Spc. Sanjiv Joshi, DPWâ€™s contract officer representative. He is in charge of quality control, and works closely with the contractors hired to complete the job. For Joshi, a business owner from Guttenburg, N.J., getting the most from the contractors is no break from what he did back home.
â€œIâ€™m a customer; I demand a lot of the contractors. I want them to finish everything on time. I try to save money as much as I can,â€ he said.
One way he saved money was on the sidewalk that surrounds the playground. Joshi suggested using paving stones from other demolition projects around the IZ, which provided a significant savings on the project, costing less than one-tenth of the originally quoted price. Joshi said that heâ€™s proud to be working on projects like the playground.
â€œThis is very exciting. Weâ€™re leaving something behind that generations can enjoy; especially the kids. This is something we can proudly go back and say we built a park, we built a school. This is definitely for Iraqi people. This is for the new generation, the young kids, to enjoy,â€œ he said.
Joshi said that one of the most rewarding things about this project is to see the reaction of the Iraqi children to the project.
â€œWhen we were bringing the equipment in there were kids waiting for us to put the playground in so that they could use it. So they were very excited and seeing that makes me very happy for what Iâ€™m doing here and what Iâ€™m contributing to the Iraqi people.â€
According to Joshi, this project means something to more than just the inhabitants of the 215 Apartments; it means a lot to his twin nine-year-old daughters as well.
â€œI send them e-mails, I send them pictures. I say, â€˜Hey look, Iâ€™m building a park,â€™ and theyâ€™re very excited, they always want to see new pictures they always want to see how the playground is coming along,â€ he said.
Joshi said that the interest in the playground project doesnâ€™t stop with his children. In fact, the other students at their school as well as teachers are taking an interest as well.
â€œTheyâ€™re going back to school, telling their teachers what Iâ€™m doing in Iraq. Iâ€™m getting positive e-mails from my kids and their classmates saying how wonderful it is to hear that we are building a playground for the Iraqi people.â€
He also said that it gives him a unique way to bond with his daughters, which can often be a challenge for parents deployed away from home for long periods of time.
â€œIt gives me something to talk about with my girls. To them, building a park is a big deal. Theyâ€™re always asking me questions about the playground. You know, â€˜Do the kids play like us?â€™ They always want to know,â€ he said.
Now completed, Sterling said it feels good to know that sheâ€™s doing her part to help move the country in a positive direction.
â€œItâ€™s really good to see all your hard work come to a concrete end point. Yes, I did that; look at that and thatâ€™s for the benefit for all these other people. At the end of the day, weâ€™re giving something back to the community, weâ€™re making that community better and a more vibrant place,â€ she said.
Story by Spc. William Addison