It started with a young Iraqi girl, separated from her mother.
The frightened 7-year-old was enveloped in the crowd waiting to enter the Baghdad Green Zone. She was crying for her mother, who had passed through security at the gate and left her daughter behind to wait.
That was the moment Army National Guard Chief Warrant Officer Paul Holton saw the difference he could make.
Holton, a Salt Lake City resident whose recent book, “Collateral Kindness" (Cedar Fort, $12.99) narrates his deployment in the opening scenes of the Iraq War from a positive perspective. The book also tells the story of how Holton’s desire to show love for the Iraqi people led to the creation of Operation Give, his nonprofit organization.
Holton asked the soldiers at the gate to move the barbed wire so the girl could rejoin her mother, then ran to get something from his office, where he worked as a strategic debriefer for Iraqi informants.
When he returned, he handed the girl some new flip-flops and some hygiene items, then placed a stuffed monkey with long arms and velcroed hands around her neck. Her eyes lit up.
That moment he saw a vision of how he might help. “Though it might have seemed like a small, seemingly insignificant act, it was one of those times when you realize that you can make a difference," Holton said. "One thing led to another, and that was the launching pad, if you will, to start asking people to send me toys. That act initiated the formation and birth of Operation Give.”
It's been nearly a decade since the Salt Lake City-based nonprofit was officially formed, and since then the organization has shipped a total of 120 40-foot container loads overseas. Operation Give has evolved over the years, beginning with shipping toys for Holton and other soldiers to give to children in Iraq, then spreading to Afghanistan and countries like Sri Lanka and South Korea, where he is currently serving as the operations officer for the U.S. Army at the Korea Battle Simulation Center.
“Our focus is to stay with the military and support them,” Holton said, which enables the group to have extra resources to connect with and help the people in the countries where they are serving. The nonprofit doesn’t just send out toys anymore, but also clothing, shoes, sports equipment, school and medical supplies, hygiene items, and stockings for soldiers during the holidays.
Holton was deployed to Iraq again in 2010 as U.S. military operations there drew to a close. The second time around, he wasn’t interrogating prisoners of war like in 2003, but working in civil affairs. He coordinated with the U.S. State Department and with religious, community and civil leaders in Iraq, doing reconstructive work such as giving out micro loans to help people start businesses. There was a more coordinated effort among Iraqis and Americans, Holton said, to go out and do good things — very different from his first deployment to Iraq.
His deployments in Iraq “have been some of the most rewarding and enjoyable times of my life,” Holton said, especially because of what he has accomplished there through Operation Give. “I can’t help but feel good about what we’ve done, and the people’s lives we’ve touched.”
“We don’t know if we’ve added anything to increase the longevity of democracy in Iraq, but I know a lot of people have benefited from the items we’ve shipped,” he added.
Since the majority of U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq, Operation Give has sent the bulk of its donations to soldiers in Afghanistan; the organization has gotten a lot of stories and thank-yous in return.
“You’re planting seeds,” he said. “You never know what will grow out of what you’ve done.”
The title of his book, “Collateral Kindness,” is important, Holton said. “You are on a military mission and you’re in a war. War is ugly and people die and terrible things happen, but the one thing that also happens is there also is a lot of good and a lot of kindness.”
Holton said that his faith in God has influenced his perspective as a soldier.
“I believe in mankind and that it’s our job to do things for others and help those in need,” he said. “It has a huge impact and influence on what I do as a person.”
In his book, he frequently mentions how he has seen God’s hand influence and bless his life and change its direction.
He said it was an important perspective to include in his book — one that was often overlooked in favor of more negative portrayals of the Iraq War in the media.
“I felt I wanted to be honest about that,” Holton said. “There were so many times that at night, I’d look back at what happened during the day and I‘d almost come to tears thinking about how miraculous it was. It just forces you to come to your knees to give thanks for the whole experience, and that I was part of it.”
Alison Snyder has a bachelor's degree in print journalism from Brigham Young University, and has worked for newspapers at local, regional and national levels.