In the winter of 2003, my friend Laura Hillenbrand, author of the best-selling book Seabiscuit, got an e-mail from an American soldier in Iraq. He had just returned from visiting a rural school for girls where he and a translator had been reading Laura's book. Taught in a squalid, one-room building, with almost no learning tools and fewer books, the students were thrilled at the sight of the Seabiscuit paperback. An attached photo showed a soldier in full desert camouflage standing in a sea of smiling Iraqi girls, with one child clutching Laura's book as if it were a magical treasure. Looking at the picture, Laura cried.
A few months earlier, while touring Iraq with the USO, I made a detour to visit an elementary school. American soldiers had transformed the place from a fetid shack to a clean, bright building, but children huddled four to a notebook, three to a pencil. Half a world apart, Laura and I made the same resolution: We had to get learning tools to these children.
When I returned to the States, we rolled up our sleeves and created Operation Iraqi Children (www.operationiraqichildren.org).
In a few breathtaking and exhausting weeks, we had a Web site up and running from which donors could get instructions on what to buy for a school supply kit (colored pencils, scissors) and how to assemble it and send it to our Kansas City warehouse—where FedEx would deliver it gratis to an American base in Iraq. Soldiers would then distribute the kits to schools.
Operation Iraqi Children has supplied tens of thousands of kids with the tools of childhood. American soldiers laden with bulging Ziploc bags pull up to schools and are engulfed by gleeful children. Our goals are to bring the gift of learning to kids and to foster goodwill between the Iraqis and our troops. Is it working? At a recent distribution event, children sang and danced while their parents hugged the soldiers. As one Iraqi parent put it, "We shall never forget this day."
Gary Sinise stars in CSI: NY Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. Eastern time on CBS.