KHNZERA KASER, Iraq - Children squealed as they thumbed through the pages of their new coloring books. Others stared at their Hot Wheels cars, seemingly afraid to damage the package. The girls gently petted their new stuffed animals.
And the Washington National Guard soldiers snapped digital photos of the dozens of smiling faces.
A village elder, however, had more pressing concerns: The father of nine told Staff Sgt. Selina Wadsworth that one of his sons had sinus issues when dust storms swept across his home. Another child had headaches. And the younger ones suffered from diarrhea.
Wadsworth handed the man a bottle of saline nasal spray.
"Two times on each side," the Bellingham resident said, as an interpreter translated into Arabic. "If he has allergies, it won't cure things, but it can help him feel better."
Wadsworth continued the ad hoc tutorial on cough syrup, Tylenol, chewable vitamins and electrolyte strips, all of which sat in a nearby box sent from a church in Bellingham.
"Shukran," the man said when Wadsworth finished, placing a hand over his heart.
The interpreter didn't need to translate the Arabic phrase and gesture for thank you.
"Sometimes the Iraqis will take us up on the offer of help," Wadsworth said after returning to nearby Contingency Operating Base Qayyarah West. "Some won't. But either way, we want them to know we're out here to help them."
That's the focus of regular missions by the soldiers of headquarters company, 81st Brigade Special Troops Battalion. The company is responsible for defending Q-West, as the base in northern Iraq is commonly called.
The unit is part of the 81st Brigade Combat Team, based out of Camp Murray south of Tacoma but now on a year-long Iraq deployment.
Its soldiers patrol this area daily and often meet with residents of villages that dot the landscape. The unit also distributes gifts for the children and essentials for the adults about once a week.
The missions are part of a larger counterinsurgency strategy, in which mixing with the local community is often as important as militarily defeating enemies.
The result, battalion commander Lt. Col. Kenneth Garrison said, is a "great relationship between our soldiers and the Iraqis who live around the base."
The soldiers' first stop Thursday was a small collection of houses beside a dirt road. Its residents said they were farmers, but desert plains with no signs of vegetation stretched across the mud-brick homes for miles. The only livestock in sight were four fat, black turkeys.
The rains came too late for the crops the past four years, a man in his 40s told the soldiers, so he had to sell his sheep to buy food for the three generations of his family who live in the compound.
More than a dozen children emerged from the houses and similar ones about a mile away to wave at the Americans. The kids received candy, dolls, coloring books and crayons while the farmers prepared glasses of hot, sweet tea for the visitors.
Collecting the supplies is a grassroots affair; many of the soldiers contact family, churches and community groups back home in Washington and ask for donations.
One soldier's church in Bellingham sent three boxes of pediatric medicine. Another's fiancée mailed 50 toothbrushes when she heard dental problems were common. Still others donated school supplies, baby clothes and shoes.
Many needs the villagers face are health-related. Wadsworth uses her training as a medic to help diagnose problems - diarrhea, toothaches and headaches are the most common - and distribute donated medicine.
"A lot of the problems seem to stem from a lack of water and improper nutrition," said Wadsworth, a 32-year-old who works on full-time orders for the National Guard.
The unit began its missions into the villages shortly after it arrived at Q-West in early November. Wadsworth said many villagers would ask for medical help for their children, but she couldn¹t help much at first because the medicine she carries is intended for adults.
The situation, she said, made her feel "kind of ineffective." Wadsworth contacted her father, who helped organize a donation drive at his church. The medicine given to the villagers of Khnzera Kaser came from one of those collections.
"Talking, handing out things, showing concern for them and their kids it all works," she said. "We have started dialogues with them, and they enjoy seeing us patrolling. They know we're here to help."
The missions have also led to tips that have prevented potential attacks, soldiers say.
The battalion commander would like to do more humanitarian missions, but the new status-of-forces agreement between Washington, D.C., and Baghdad limits the opportunities, Garrison said.
The plan, which went into effect Jan. 1, calls for a phasing out of American involvement in the cities, towns and villages of Iraq.
"It's frustrating. I understand it on the global sense," Garrison said, "but it's still frustrating on the local level."