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Face of Defense: Surgeon Aids Economic Development in Rural Iraq

Marine Corps Capt. Paul Greenberg, Special to American Forces Press Service

Navy Cmdr. (Dr.) Dennis McKenna, left, battalion surgeon for 2nd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 5, walks the streets of Rutbah, Iraq, on a security patrol, Oct. 21, 2008, with Akram Shawky Mohammed, center, his Arabic interpreter, and Marines and sailors from the battalion's Weapons and Golf companies. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Capt. Paul Greenberg

CAMP KOREAN VILLAGE, Iraq, Oct. 29, 2008 –

When Navy Cmdr. (Dr.) Dennis McKenna took his Hippocratic oath in 1992, he vowed to devote his life to improving the welfare of human beings.

In the rural town of Rutbah in Iraq’s western Anbar province, his efforts have gone beyond working with coalition forces and the Iraqi Interior Ministry to reopen Rutbah’s only hospital. He also uses his professional experience and business acumen to help the impoverished town establish an economic base, which will serve as a catalyst for overall improvement in the quality of life there.

McKenna, 42, is the battalion surgeon for 2nd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, 4th Marine Division, a reserve unit based in Garden City, N.Y. A 20-year Navy reservist, he is on a one-year mobilization with the battalion, which is attached to Regimental Combat Team 5.

In his civilian career, McKenna is an emergency medicine physician at Albany Medical Center, Albany, N.Y., where he has worked for 11 years. When not mobilized, he drives 360 miles round-trip one weekend every month from his home in Selkirk, N.Y., to attend reserve drills.

“I believe in service,” McKenna said. “I believe you have to give something back, and I love serving with the Marines.”

Although he primarily has a science and medical background, McKenna volunteered to take on collateral duty as the economics line of operations officer, or LOO.

The battalion’s line of operations officers glean from their professional and military backgrounds to serve as advisors for local Iraqi governments in areas such as governance, essential services and rule of law.

“I bring a common-sense approach, identifying problems and proposing logical solutions,” McKenna explained. “That is what it takes to be a LOO — someone with a real passion for the subject and who is able to present the commander with different options.

“The lines of operations are about setting the people of Rutbah up for success,” he continued. “We need to find those people, those Bill Gates and Thomas Jeffersons. These people have been reluctant to show their potential in the past because of the situation that existed here for so long.”

The Marines and sailors of 2nd Battalion, 25th Marines, arrived at Camp Korean Village, about 20 miles from Rutbah, in early October. The first step in making strides toward improving the economy was to conduct an “economic atmospherics” assessment.

McKenna explained that the most important thing is getting out into the community, talking to “the average man on the street,” and getting the whole story.

Escorted by Marines and sailors from the battalion’s Weapons and Golf companies on a series of security patrols, McKenna made his rounds through the city Oct. 20 and 21, speaking with Iraqis from all socioeconomic strata to get a clear picture of the overall economic situation in order to determine how he can work with local Iraqi leaders to improve it.

The project is not an easy one, considering that this remote part of the country, about 230 miles from Baghdad, is just beginning to transition to a full-fledged democracy with a free-market economy. More than half of the adult population is unemployed, and coalition and Iraqi security forces have only recently quelled the violent insurgency that rocked the province for more than three years.

“On a macro level, we’re not going to solve all their problems in five months,” McKenna said. “We do, however, have an outsider’s perspective. We can propose ideas that have worked in the States. We make our recommendations so that they can find Iraqi solutions to their problems here.”

In a Rutbah city council meeting Oct. 21, Muthana Jubaer Juwana, the city council president, told McKenna that most local Iraqi businessmen with the capital to invest are putting their money into businesses in Jordan and Oman. Juwana said foreign investment in a large-scale business, such as a cement or glass factory, was the town’s main hope to provide jobs.

A local tribal sheik at the city council meeting said that for a factory to be successful here, a Western company would have to build it, and its operation would need to be supervised, at least initially, by coalition forces.

McKenna, however, did not agree.

“They have the skills and potential here,” he insisted. “They built this city. They have educated people. We just need to focus on establishing a cadre of business leaders who have confidence in their city.”

As coalition forces take a step back and focus on providing mentorship and guidance to the Iraqi security forces, it ultimately is up to the Iraqi people to determine the direction their country will take in the future, McKenna said.

(Marine Corps Capt. Paul Greenberg serves with Regimental Combat Team 5.)

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