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The Wall Street Journal

Navy Seabee Finds Care Packages Aren't Easy to Get to Iraq

Mr. Labrada Uses Own Money After Hitting Roadblocks; Changes on Home Front

By Douglas A. Blackmon and Evan Perez

10 February 2005
Copyright © 2005 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

MIAMI -- Desperate to pitch in after the Sept. 11 attacks, Fernando Labrada quickly joined a reserve unit of the Seabees -- a branch of the Navy that specializes in construction and engineering. But instead of shipping out to Afghanistan or Iraq, the burly homebuilder, now 38 years old, ended up spending weekends changing light bulbs and repairing toilet seats at a reserve center close to home.

So Mr. Labrada decided to take things into his own hands. In late 2003, he announced "Project Phoenix," a plan to send a massive care package of building materials to aid in the reconstruction of Iraq.

"We're in the middle of a war, but you'd never know it by looking around," Mr. Labrada said at the time. "I don't want to be a hero. But when my son grows up and asks me what I did during the war, I can say I did something."

Soon, a sun-drenched parking lot on the edge of Miami was piling up with dozens of pallets of building materials donated by suppliers to his family's home-building company: more than 10,000 two-by-fours, 21,000 ceramic tiles, 1,000 sheets of plywood, 1,000 sheets of drywall, 2,500 cinder blocks and much more.

There was just one problem: The U.S. government didn't want it.

One after another, various branches of the military, federal agencies and nongovernmental organizations working with the U.S. turned down Mr. Labrada's gift. A U.S. Agency for International Development official told Mr. Labrada that there was already a plan for providing necessary supplies in Iraq and no extra room in the military supply line.

It was a hard lesson for Mr. Labrada on the nature of the wartime home front in a time of deeply divided public sentiments about the conflict in Iraq and a radically transformed military. The era of scaled-down, all-volunteer forces has brought with it fewer direct connections between citizens and the fighting, corporate contracts for the reconstruction of destroyed territory and only limited calls for citizen self-sacrifice. The home front -- with a handful of big exceptions -- is made up mostly of "Support Our Troops" magnetic yellow ribbons stuck on cars and trucks.

Some people like Mr. Labrada see a new ambivalence toward citizen sacrifice and a principle that Americans once embraced during wartime: that everyone has a part to play.

During World War II, citizens who hadn't been drafted to fight were implored to buy war bonds and perform volunteer work. Mothers rolled bandages. Fathers tended victory gardens. Towns organized blood drives and recycling campaigns. After the defeat of Germany, millions of Americans aided the populations of European allies and enemies through churches and other charities. Similar efforts were undertaken in postwar Japan and later South Korea. Even after Vietnam, another war that deeply polarized the U.S. public, churches and individuals across the country helped thousands of Vietnamese families resettle in America.

Those efforts "had a tremendous multiplier effect in terms of generating goodwill," says James F. Tent, a University of Alabama-Birmingham historian of the post-World War II period. "The Iraqis are human beings just like us. . . . Somewhere down the road, they could become friends of ours."

President Bush has praised civilian outreach efforts in Iraq but mostly encouraged Americans to maintain their normal work and family lives and to show their support for U.S. soldiers. The administration has sought to fund the war through regular government channels and has been reluctant to issue "war bonds" specifically aimed at raising money for the conflict.

One explanation for the change is that today's rapid warfare requires fewer troops, so fewer American families are touched directly by the war, and fewer soldiers come home with personal sympathies -- or new spouses -- from the occupied population. While 16 million Americans went into military service during the World War II era, only about 650,000 have served during the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, out of a total current armed force of about 1.4 million. The population of Iraqi-Americans in the U.S. is also small, meaning there is no built-in base of domestic support for humanitarian programs for Iraqi civilians.

Many Americans were also uncertain, especially in the first months of the Iraq conflict, whether Iraqis needed help beyond the billions of dollars in relief and reconstruction being provided by contractors paid by the U.S. government. Attacks by Iraqi insurgents on foreign-relief programs have further stymied some citizen-sponsored efforts to foster goodwill toward Iraq.

Some determined home-front activists have pressed on -- especially in programs to help U.S. service members. There were campaigns to send letters, snacks, toiletries and even frequent-flier miles to military personnel and their families.

An Eagle Scout candidate in Utah named Benjamin Jacob Inks organized shipments of baseballs, bats and mitts to kids in Afghanistan and Iraq. George Ball, owner of W. Atlee Burpee & Co., of Warminster, Pa., sent pallet loads of tomato, onion, squash, watermelon and other varieties of seed to Iraqi farmers. The International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention sent several million pounds of food to Iraq.

U.S. Army Major Gregg Softy started one program with an e-mail to acquaintances in 2003 describing shortages in the schools his unit was helping rebuild in Baghdad. As the e-mail circulated, a groundswell of small packages began arriving in Baghdad through the mail. The program,, has distributed more than a million pounds of pencils, paper and other goods.

One reason Mr. Labrada refused to let his Project Phoenix fail was that his intense patriotic impulses had been frustrated once before. During the first Persian Gulf War in 1991, Mr. Labrada signed up for the Marines but injured his knee during basic training at Parris Island, S.C. He was in medical rehabilitation when word came that the war was over.

Mr. Labrada was born into a wealthy family from Cuba and Puerto Rico. His godfather was Carlos Prio Socarras, a pre-Fidel Castro president of Cuba. Today he lives with his wife and three young children in a luxury apartment in swank Key Biscayne, near Miami.

Tall, with a severe military haircut, he drives a surplus Army Humvee. He chokes up describing his fear that his own children could become victims of a terrorist attack. "I don't want to die. I don't want to be a hero," he says. "But to do nothing is worse."

Project Phoenix began during a training exercise for Mr. Labrada's Seabee unit at Camp Lejeune, N.C., in the spring of 2003. The Iraq invasion was well under way, and Mr. Labrada and a fellow reservist, Patricio Gonzalez, a construction manager with an architectural firm, were convinced Americans weren't doing enough. When the two Seabees got back to Miami, they began planning the giant care package.

After his Seabee command turned down Mr. Labrada's request for use of a military facility to begin collecting donated goods, he persuaded local Army Reserve personnel to allow him to use a parking lot normally full of vehicles that had been deployed to Iraq. Soon, thousands of pounds of lumber, electrical equipment, masonry and other materials were piling up.

But no one would take them. After months of cajoling military officials, aid agencies and political leaders, Mr. Labrada finally spent $11,449 of his own money to put the goods on a commercial ocean freighter in February 2004. A high-ranking friend in the Marine Corps promised to make sure the U.S. military in Kuwait knew the goods were coming and would find a good use for them. Two months later, the boxes were unloaded at a port in the United Arab Emirates -- almost 900 miles from Iraq.

Then Mr. Labrada got a surprise. His Seabee unit was mobilized. After arriving in Kuwait in March 2004, he learned the Project Phoenix containers were stuck in the U.A.E., but there was little he could do. Meanwhile, his unit moved on to the U.S. airbase at Al Asad, 130 miles west of Baghdad, where Mr. Labrada worked as a carpenter building temporary housing for U.S. soldiers.

A few weeks later, two soldiers from Mr. Labrada's unit died when an improvised explosive device hit a Humvee transporting part of the group. Two days after that, another five were killed and 35 wounded during a mortar assault on the U.S. base at Ramadi. Mr. Labrada volunteered to join a beefed up security unit to protect his Seabee battalion. Over the next six months, he and the security team traveled more than 10,000 miles on 90 missions, escorting convoys of Seabees between the U.S. base at Ramadi, in western Iraq, and construction sites throughout the country.

Finally, last July, after Mr. Labrada had spent another $3,000 in port charges, the massive packages arrived at Al Asad air base.

Rear Adm. Charles R. Kubic, the top Seabee commander until his retirement last month, had just launched a new program to teach construction and carpentry skills to Iraqis. When Seabee officers learned what was in the containers Mr. Labrada sent, they set the apprentices to work with the cinder block, drywall and other supplies to erect a training facility for Iraqi border police.

No one in the military expresses doubts about Mr. Labrada's program any more. "What was impressive about the contribution of these two Seabees was they did it all on their own," Adm. Kubic said in a recent interview. "Kind of amazing."

Late last summer, while still in Iraq, Mr. Labrada and Mr. Gonzales went to see the building. When no one was looking, Mr. Labrada slipped a picture of his three young children inside one of the unfinished cinder-block walls.

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