Soldiers in 1st Lt. Iven Sugai's unit hand out school supplies to Iraqi children. Sugai has since returned to the islands, but the drive for donations continues.

Isle soldier plots course
to help students in Iraq

During his 10-month tour in Iraq, 1st Lt. Iven Sugai helped lead a Kentucky-based unit charged with collecting tons of unexploded ordnance -- artillery pieces, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades -- from northern Iraq's landscape.

Along the way, the Hawaii Pacific University graduate found time to kick-start an effort aimed at getting much-needed school supplies to Iraqi children.

The drive has meant that 1,500 children attending at least six schools near Mosul have been given access to the most fundamental tools of learning, including pencils and paper.

"It feels so great to help those less fortunate," said Sugai, who is vacationing on Kauai with his wife, also a first lieutenant in the Army, before returning to the mainland with his unit.

"Being able to help, especially the children, it's just a great feeling."

Sugai, 27, grew up in Ewa. After graduating from James Campbell High School, he joined the Army National Guard. Once he received his bachelor's degree in economics at HPU, Sugai was commissioned into the Army as an officer.

Since collections began in October, dozens of Hawaii clubs and organizations have sent boxes of school supplies to Iraqi primary schools. Boxes are still being filled and mailed, even though Sugai and his unit left the country almost two months ago.

And the project's local leaders, most of whom are at HPU, say they will continue looking for donations as long as there is a reliable source in Iraq willing to distribute the supplies.

Sugai's company commander, Capt. Mark Sherkey, started him and three of his fellow lieutenants in the 101st Airborne Division on the hunt for donations last fall after the group toured several Iraqi schools and "found that the children and the state of the classrooms were in such bad shape," Sugai said.

Iraqi schoolchildren squeeze into small classrooms and sit at ratty desks. There is rarely electricity for lighting, much less climate control, he said.

During winter the students huddle together for warmth. In summer they sweat in rooms with few windows.

After touring Mosul area schools, Sugai contacted HPU alumni coordinator Kristen Vasey Smith and asked whether the university would be interested in helping Iraqi children. Within days the effort was dubbed "Operation Educate," and HPU officials had raided their bookstore for supplies to send to the program's designated schools.

"It was an obvious project for the university to jump on board," said Margi Ulveling, HPU associate vice president of institutional advancement. "We just boxed up as much as we could. ... We pretty much cleared our shelves of all the materials we thought they could use."

The call for supplies then spread to the Honolulu Rotary Club and Arcadia Retirement Residence, which have sent boxes of their own.

Sugai said the schoolchildren were delighted with the new supplies and held a celebration for the lieutenant and his unit before they left, performing songs and preparing food for the soldiers.

"They were just so grateful," Sugai said. "When we did our last delivery ... it was nothing but smiling faces, lots of handshakes and hugs."

Neither Smith nor Sugai could say how many boxes of supplies have been sent to Iraq from the islands. But, Sugai said, a few weeks after "I put out the request ... we were receiving boxes almost daily" from Hawaii.

Smith said she expects a big jump in donations later this month, after she solicits help from her university's clubs.

For more information on the program, visit Smith said donations can be sent to Michael Masterson at CPA Ninevah/CPA North; APO, AE 09359.


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