Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Randy Rogers and Iraq

One of the great things about being involved with the Ohio Ornithological Society is the opportunity to work with a really great bunch of forward-thinking folks. While our primary work is here in Ohio, and that's where the bulk of our effort goes, every now and then the chance arises to do something beneficial beyond our borders.

An OOS member, Randy Rogers, is a Major in the National Guard, and is currently deployed in Iraq. A one man tour de force, he hit the ground running over there, and has made incredible strides in getting fellow troops involved with birds and nature, as well as forging alliances with Iraqis with conservation being the initial common ground.

Ann Oliver, our wonderful and talented Cerulean newsletter editor, took up Randy's cause with a passion, and has spread word of his efforts far and wide. Because of her efforts, the OOS has raised about $2000 to date to further Randy's work, with more to come. And Ann's hard work led to a wonderful article in today's Columbus Dispatch by Suzanne Hoholik that does a terrrific job of detailing Major Rogers and his work in Iraq. I've posted the main story below, but I encourage you to visit the Dispatch website to get the full color version with photos. JUST CLICK HERE. Copies of Randy's informative and photo-filled newsletters are also available there.

Abundant thanks are due to Ann Oliver for her innovation and hard work, the entire board of the OOS for strongly supporting Randy's project, and to everyone who made donations or otherwise supported this effort. May a Masked Shrike land on your feeder, and may you never be cornered by a Honey Badger!

Major Nature
National Guard officer takes his interest in birds, animals, plants to air base in Iraq
Tuesday, December 9, 2008 3:00 AM
By Suzanne Hoholik

Maj. Randel Rogers' official job duties include making sure that troops in western Iraq have all the ammunition, food, water and fuel they need.

But it's his unofficial duties that have attracted an audience on base, across Iraq and throughout the United States.

Rogers, an Ohio Army National Guard member at al-Asad Air Base in Iraq, is an amateur birder, a naturalist and the go-to guy for all questions of flora and fauna.

"Today, I got a pencil sketch of some kind of gerbil I'm trying to look up," Rogers said in a recent interview. "I've had people bring me pictures -- usually they don't pick the plants. Once in a while, they bring me a sample in a container, or (hand me) rocks."

Rogers, a logistics officer with the 371st Sustainment Brigade, was sent to the largest air base in Iraq in July. Although the country is only a war zone to many people, it represents something else to Rogers. He sees it as an opportunity to study species he's never seen.

Within a month, he had published the first of his online newsletters to educate (and entertain) fellow troops and people back in the United States about the plants, animals and insects he and others spot in Anbar province.

Rogers, a Far West Side resident, publishes "Al Asad au Natural" every few weeks.
He said he started the newsletter to answer questions he heard on base.

What kind of tree is that? What is that blooming out there? What's this animal? What's living under my CHU (container housing unit)?

The newsletter allows him to collectively answer questions, educate soldiers about their surroundings and, Rogers said, build morale among troops.

"It seems to help the families feel closer to their deployed solders," he said. "I get a lot of positive feedback from the soldiers because they're curious about what they see around them."

Rogers' newsletters are packed with information. There are features on Persian field mice, the golden jackal, the al-Asad oasis and the tamarisk tree.

And rocks.

"The geology here is a little different; there's not a lot of fossils here," Rogers said. "But we still find things like flint."

In every issue, there's some mention of or connection to Ohio.

And there always is something on birds, Rogers' passion. In "Birders' Corner," a regular feature, he identifies an interesting species and provides background.

He has recorded 70 species.

"What surprises a lot of people is the diversity," he said. "Sometimes the people aren't paying attention to the nature around you."

Rogers is not the first U.S. military member to write about nature in Iraq. After serving with the Connecticut National Guard in Iraq in 2004, Sgt. 1st Class Jonathan Trouern-Trend wrote the book Birding Babylon: A Soldi er ' s Journal from Iraq.

Rogers, 42, became interested in birds when he bought his house in Columbus. He set up a bird feeder in his yard and began to record the species that showed up. He's at 57.

He's done the same during a tour of duty in South Korea and during vacation and birding trips to places that include Japan, Mexico, England, Greece, Kuwait and Tanzania.

He joined the National Guard in 1995. Before that, he served five years in the Army Reserve and four years on active duty.

In Columbus, where he works full time for the Guard, he is a member of the Ohio Ornithological Society and volunteers at the Metro Parks.

Some of the people he's met through both groups are on his mailing list. So are soldiers, some of whom send it along to their families.

A number of people share it. He's received e-mails from readers as far-flung as New York and California.

Angela Greene, a seventh-grade science teacher at Tecumseh Middle School in New Carlisle in Clark County, is an avid reader. She said the father of one of her students is based at al-Asad.
Greene teaches biodiversity and ecology, and she said the newsletters help her students compare nature in Ohio and Iraq.

"We've been charting the different creatures he features and organisms he's writing about," she said.

Members of the ornithological society are thrilled that Rogers publishes the newsletter. They say "Al-Asad au Natural" gets soldiers interested in nature and helps Americans better understand Iraq's natural history.

"His personal mission of building bridges between us and Iraqi birders hopefully will bear wonderful, sweet fruit," said Ann Oliver, a Cincinnati resident and a member of the ornithological society. "He is a birding army of one."

But he has help. Rogers is working with Nature Iraq, a nongovernmental agency that is working to restore and protect Iraq's environment.

The group's officials praise the newsletters and distribute them to young people who work with them. They plan to put the newsletters up on the group's Web site.

"Maybe someday in the future, Randel's articles (will) become very important," Mudhafar Salim, an ornithologist with Nature Iraq, wrote in an e-mail.

Other Nature Iraq officials say that Rogers' newsletters give Americans a glimpse of the real Iraq, not the isolated areas torn by years of warfare.

"People are surprised to know that we have snow-covered mountains and a wetland larger than the Florida Everglades," Azzam Alwash, executive director of Nature Iraq, wrote in an e-mail.
In January, Rogers plans to go out on a birding survey with Nature Iraq officials in Iraq's northern Kurdish area.

And although his tour ends in April, he has applied for a job that would keep him there until February 2010.

He said there is a lot left to study.

To help, the Ohio Ornithological Society is raising money to buy cameras, binoculars and books on birds, plants, trees and flowers for Nature Iraq so the group can continue its work to restore the nation's environment.

The Ohio group has raised about $2,000.

Being able to see Iraq as a place just like the United States -- with birds, plants, animals and insects, rather than a battleground -- helps people halfway across the world connect to Iraqis.
These "are the great equalizer because people can identify with them," said Jim McCormac, president of the ornithological society and a state avian expert with the Ohio Division of Wildlife.
"It humanizes the environment a lot more because Iraq's a wonderful place from a natural-history perspective."

Donations can be mailed to Ohio Ornithological Society, Randy Rogers' Iraq Project, P.O. Box 14051, Columbus, 43214.

The group's Web site is www.ohiobirds.org.

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