JIM HAKE traveled to Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base near San Diego a few days before Christmas to meet with senior officers of the 1st Marine Division. During the visit, Hake learned from the Marines what Iraqis could really use right now: frisbees.
"Interestingly, frisbees were identified as a great tool for Marines to build relations with Iraqi children; teaching kids how to throw a frisbee will provide an opportunity for interaction and, as there is a tendency to make awkward, wild throws at first, it will get everyone laughing," explained Hake, founder of the nonprofit charity Spirit of America.
In addition to frisbees, Marines in the 1st Division also hope to arm themselves with donated soccer balls, school supplies, medical supplies (blood pressure cuffs, stethoscopes, thermometers), as well as supplies for the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps and local police, when they are deployed to the Sunni Triangle this February.
A native of suburban Philadelphia and graduate of Stanford Business School, Hake launched Spirit of America last spring with funds from the sale of his successful Internet media business. He lives now in Los Angeles with his wife and two sons. The 46-year-old computer guru was inspired by a National Geographic documentary about U.S. Special Forces who had given baseball gloves and bats to children in a remote village in Afghanistan. Hake modeled his organization on that very idea of building relationships through gifts of friendship. With the help of "boots-on-the-ground" American troops who see firsthand the needs of the communities in which they serve, Spirit of America fulfills requests for supplies not normally provided by traditional aid services.
Last September, Spirit of America answered Lt. Col. Al Burghard's request for dental supplies for families in Al Hillah, and Lt. Col. David Couvillon's request for soccer jerseys for children in Wassit Province. And Hake hasn't had to travel to Iraq to sense the Marines' enthusiasm and the recipients' appreciation. "It would have been unconscionable if I didn't make this happen," Hake says. "This combination of the warrior and the humanitarian . . . has made me extremely proud to be an American."
Hake feels that it's not the size or value of a gift that determines relationships with locals, but the symbolic interaction that gift-giving involves. Division Major General Jim Mattis agrees that small actions make a difference--so much so, that he has requested that his Marines not wear sunglasses, so they can make eye contact with the Iraqis.
SYMBOLISM has also been a key factor in the requests made by those in the Army, as U.S. Army Civil Affairs Captain Justin Thomas has shown. Thomas emailed Spirit of America requesting musical instruments for the people of Khormal. In the email, he wrote, "I believe that one necessity is musical instruments. I know this sounds trivial, but the towns around Halabja and Khormal are known throughout Kurdistan for their cultural history, [including] musicianship and traditional Kurdish music. . . . Music was outlawed until the people were liberated at the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom." Now, to celebrate the end of 15 years of silence, 10 Eastern pianos, 10 violins, 2 music tables, and a moveable amplifier have been shipped to Khormal for the enjoyment of the town's youth, a donation that "[could not] be more symbolic of their freedom and culturally appropriate," Hake says.
Spirit of America enables American military, Foreign Service, and reconstruction personnel to submit specific requests for goods on its website. The requests are then announced to potential donors, whose contributions are sent to the requestor. Sometimes, cash donations are sent so items can be purchased locally. "Our approach is to be more of a hub for requests," says Hake. This includes forming electronic relationships not only with servicemen abroad, but with donors and bloggers who can get the word out. And while Spirit of America is focused mainly on donating just to Iraq at this time, Hake plans to serve other countries and is looking for a full-time executive director. There are currently six volunteers working for Spirit of America.
Hake, who has described his organization as a means to meaningfully support victory in Iraq by changing hearts and minds, has used his background in Internet communications to establish an efficient, non-bureaucratic chain of communication overseas and on the home front. He fully believes that breaking down barriers with Iraqis at the most basic level is strategically important to what happens in Iraq on a broader scale, and refers to an old war-time poster that hangs in his office as a reminder of his organization's overall mission. It reads: UNITED WE WIN. "The basic message is more true today than ever."
Erin Montgomery is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.