Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Marines help rebuild Islamic schools in Bangladesh

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Four months after deadly storms struck Bangladesh, 40 Marines and sailors with 1st Engineer Platoon, Fuel Company, 9th Engineer Support Battalion, 3rd Marine Logistics Group, continued relief efforts alongside 100 Bangladesh Army and Navy service members by rebuilding two schools March 6 – 30.

The construction project was part of the III Marine Expeditionary Force Bangladesh Interoperability Program, a joint effort focused on helping Bangladeshi communities rebuild from the storm that killed an estimated 3,500 people and caused an estimated $450 million in damage.

The platoon was assign to the town of Mongla in the southwest corner of Bangladesh. In January, an advanced party of Marines was sent to survey the conditions of two Islamic schools, known as Madrasahs, which were identified for repair. The team found little to survey.

“The buildings were gone,” said Gunnery Sgt. David Dickens, platoon sergeant. “They were destroyed. So basically it was just two open lots.”

The engineers immediately went to work designing two new schools from the ground up. Instead of using their standard construction templates, the 9th ESB Marines modified the design to ensure the buildings could be maintained with materials readily available in Bangladesh after they left. They decided on using tin for the roofs and bamboo sheathing for walls instead of the plywood and shingles more common in Western construction.

Building the schools with unconventional materials required the assistance of a Bangladesh Army engineer platoon who worked alongside the U.S. service members.

“As Americans we don’t do a lot of tin roofing any more,” Dickens said. “We had to lean on the expertise of the Bangladesh Army for that.”

Members of the Bangladesh Navy provided security during the project.

Some platoon members found working with the Bangladeshi soldiers difficult at first due to the language barrier as communications were often reduced to hand signals.

“We were basically playing charades in order to construct a building,” said Cpl. Michael Spivey, a squad leader for the platoon.

Over time, both parties began to pick up on the other’s language, making communication smoother. A common phrase emerged as a constant on the job site - “Shu•muh•sha•ne”, a Bangladeshi phrase meaning “no problem”.

“That was the motto of the mission. Any time there was a debate over a problem it always ended with ‘Shu•muh•sha•ne,’ we’ll figure it out,” Dickens said.

The appreciation of the townspeople was evident each day as the Marines drove through town on their way to the construction site, said squad leader Cpl. Amanda Wilson.

“They were really, really grateful and excited when we came by,” she said. “They stood on the side of the streets just waving as we passed. I’ve always wanted to do something for a country like that, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”

Dickens shared the sentiment. “It’s probably one of the best projects I’ve ever done in my 16 years in the Marine Corps,” he said.

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