By Tech. Sgt. Melissa Phillips, USAF (former name) 
Special to American Forces Press Service

ALI BASE, Iraq, Aug. 23, 2005 – Eight-year-old Baher looks like a happy, healthy boy on the outside. But the members of the combined Iraqi and U.S. Air Force C-130 aircrew who flew him on the first leg of his journey out of Iraq Aug. 22 know he isn’t healthy — at least for now.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Eight-year-old Baher and his mother, Afaf, board the C-130 aircraft that took them on the first leg of the long journey to New Orleans, where Baher will have heart surgery at Tulane University Hospital and Clinic. Photo by Tech. Sgt. Brian Davidson, USAF

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Baher and his mother, Afaf, are headed to New Orleans to have a hole in his heart repaired through a new program called “Operation Mend a Heart.”

“I was very happy to (be a part of the aircrew to) help him,” said Iraqi air force navigator Atiya, Squadron 23 (Transport).

Atiya was one the C-130 crewmembers who flew Baher from Baghdad International Airport to Basrah Air Station on the first leg of his journey.

Atiya, who has three sons, ages 11, 10 and 5, of his own, held Baher on his lap to show him the airplane’s control panel.

In Basrah, a team of Army civil affairs specialists from the Humanitarian Operation Center in Kuwait was waiting to whisk the family to Kuwait to pick up the proper visas and paperwork.

Later in the week, the mother and son are to board a plane headed for their ultimate destination — Tulane University Hospital and Clinic, where Baher will undergo surgery to correct a congenital heart defect.

Tulane is donating the $100,000 surgery. Operation Mend a Heart is facilitating the effort between Tulane, the U.S. military, and coalition forces.

More than 10 different U.S. and coalition military and civilian agencies will have a part in getting Baher to New Orleans for the life-saving surgery.

“Let’s just say it’s a network of inspired people,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Mark N. Matthews Sr., of 90th Regional Readiness Command, at Camp Pike, Ark. Matthews helped facilitate intra-theater airlift and began dreaming of ways to help Iraqi children with heart problems. Even though he currently isn’t in the Middle East, he helped smooth over logistical bumps and get the right people involved.

The Ali Base C-130 aircrew had only a short portion of the mission, but it left a lasting impression. “This was the first (advisory support team) mission that flew humanitarian airlift for their country,” said Maj. Bob May, a Squadron 23 advisory support team pilot instructor assigned to the 777th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron here.

May was the copilot and an Iraqi officer piloted the aircraft. “It was a great feeling being able to do this together with so many Iraqi crewmembers on board,” he added.

At the end of the trip, the U.S. crewmembers asked one of the Iraqis to translate their well wishes to the mother and son. “We asked the translator to tell them it was an honor for us to be able to help him,” said May, who has a son Baher’s age.

“When Baher and his mother were driving away, they were all big smiles,” May said. “It’s good to know you’re making an impact and doing something good for other people.”

That spirit of kindness is what moved Matthews, who started the seeds for the idea of the organization, while helping a 5-year-old Iraqi girl named Noor get airlifted to Kuwait aboard a Japanese aircraft earlier this year. The story garnered wide acclaim and recognition through the recently deceased reporter Peter Jennings.

“On a phone call home, I described how humbled I was to have been a part of helping Noor,” Matthews said. “Later, the organization came up with the phrase, ‘You must have a heart, to save a heart.'”

The program’s long list of supporters includes Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu. “The people behind Operation Mend a Heart understand that one way we can support our troops is by supporting the people they are fighting for, the children of Iraq,” Landrieu said in a press release. “Operation Mend a Heart will help provide the humanitarian medical assistance to the underprivileged children of Iraq who would otherwise not have access to the pediatric medical and surgical care they need.”

During the expected four-week recovery period after the surgery, an Iraqi professor at Tulane will host Baher and his mother. They’re expected to return to Iraq in October.

For many of those involved, the intense logistical coordination required by U.S. and coalition military personnel is indicative of a key role the U.S. military plays in Operation Iraqi Freedom, but that is often downplayed in the news.

“Most Americans think of our military in combat roles,” said Operation Mend a Heart program founder Karen Troyer-Caraway, who is also vice president of Tulane University Hospital and Clinic. “Many Americans do not realize that our military mission also includes humanitarian assistance, rebuilding communities, and investing in the future.

“Operation Mend a Heart is ordinary Americans helping the U.S. military accomplish their mission.”

(Air Force Tech. Sgt. Melissa Phillips is assigned to the 407th Air Expeditionary Group.)