In Iraq: Charity, love, duty lead soldier to give

CHARLESTON — Master Sgt. John Sookikian is on his second tour of duty in Baghdad, Iraq, and he is making the most of his time.

The soldier is taking the lessons of love and charity that he learned in his family church of Our Lady of the Hills in Columbia and employing them overseas by collecting clothes, balls, toys and anything else that will bring smiles to Iraqi children.

In an e-mail interview with The Miscellany, Sookikian said there should be nothing special in what he is doing.

“All you have to do is see the need and let God guide you on the path. It is the right thing to do,” he said.

Sookikian also credits his mother, Peggy, with instilling in him a strong sense of duty toward those in need. “I was raised by such a wonderful person,” he said.

Mrs. Sookikian said in a phone interview with The Miscellany that members of the church are currently putting together a second shipment of donated items to send to her son, who will distribute them to Iraqi children.

She said they need anything and everything young people like to play with, such as balls (especially soccer balls), stuffed animals, dolls, coloring books and crayons, and games like paddle-ball, that can be purchased at area dollar stores. Other necessities are gently-worn shorts and T-shirts in all sizes.

Sookikian said the children in the war-ravaged country believe any little gift is special and encouraged people not to worry about sending expensive items. He said the important thing is just to be charitable and send donations either to him, another soldier or organization.

“More importantly,” he said, “take a moment away from what the media is showing you and remember that these people are children of God.”

Sookikian relates a story about the destruction of a Christian church in Baghdad. He said it is the only time he has seen all the different factions in the Mideast come together as one. The Imans, Shia, Sunni and even the Ayatollah Sistani from Iran spoke out against the destruction and condemned it, he said, noting that it is written in the Koran that all religions must be respected.

The master sergeant takes the church teaching about all people being the children of God   seriously. His acts of charity include not only children but Iraqi soldiers with whom he battles against insurgents, and even the insurgents themselves.

Although the soldier spends most of his time at the American base, which he describes as first-rate, he also spends as much time as possible with the Iraqi soldiers in conditions that are considerably worse. Sookikian said he eats, sleeps and fights alongside them. He said the Iraqis return the same level of respect that they are given.

“I am always humbled and encouraged when I spend time with my Iraqi counterparts,” he said. “They are risking so much more than me and yet always find time to laugh and sing.”

Sookikian said it is not always easy to walk the line between American and Iraqi soldiers, who do not always “play nice” with one another. Yet he is determined to show the Iraqis a different side of America, and to show Americans that the Iraqis can be “wonderful, caring and decent.”

The pride that Mrs. Sookikian feels for her son is evident as she speaks about his efforts to befriend the people around him and make their lives better in some small way.

“It keeps us mindful of the church worldwide,” she said. “It’s not just us and them, it’s us altogether.”

People who know the Sookikian family are not surprised by their charitable acts.

“Peggy has always, always been an advocate for people who need help and she has certainly passed that on to her children,” said Sister of Notre Dame Christina Murphy, who is the pastoral associate at Our Lady of the Hills.

Another family friend, Randi Olafson, understands perfectly what the Sookikians are trying to do. She recalls the “Hey Joe!” campaign of World War II and said as long as there have been wars there have been efforts to help the victims of those wars.

Olafson’s daughter, Erika Wire, is a captain with the S.C. National Guard and served a year in Iraq as a patrol leader. While her daughter was in the Mideast, Olafson and others participated in a letter-writing campaign and sent any supplies the soldiers requested.

Now she is doing the same for Sookikian.

“I’ve known John since he was a youngster, and it doesn’t surprise me a bit. It’s very much like John to get involved like he has with the kids and the locals,” Olafson said.

She said anyone who knows a soldier serving overseas should find out what the needs are for that particular area, not only for the soldiers but for the locals as well. Olafson also recommends using small, easily-managed packages when sending supplies directly to a unit.

Prince of Peace School in Taylors shipped 239 pounds of goods to Iraq on March 31 in their Operation Flying Start drive. The contributions included school supplies, sports supplies, soccer uniforms, backpacks, notebooks and batteries. Others have collected pre-paid telephone cards so soldiers can call home, or sent items that are scarce in the desert, like coffee and shaving supplies.

Mrs. Sookikian said the soldiers use the shaving brushes to clean their guns after sandstorms. The mother of five has lost one son to war already, and is anxious for her youngest child to return safely home.

“He said it’s just a shambles over there, it’s terrible,” Mrs. Sookikian said.

Sookikian acknowledged much of the country is in ruins, especially the Shiite areas. “There is enough bad in this place; there should be some good,” he said.

The U.S. Postal Service sells flat-rate boxes in two sizes that may be mailed domestically or to military personnel anywhere in the world. The rate does not change regardless of weight.

If you would like to help, send care packages to:

MSG John Sookikian
6-2-5-3 NPTT, Unit 43347
APO AE 09344-3347