By Mark Benjamin
Our occupation of Iraq has been a losing game for a lot of reasons. Consider one Army unit’s effort to hand out hundreds of soccer balls to Iraqi kids.
Feb. 7, 2007 | On a hot summer morning in 2004, Garett Reppenhagen dragged himself out of his cot at a rudimentary Army base, 40 miles north of Baghdad, for a briefing on the day’s combat mission. His battalion of the 1st Infantry Division was holed up in an abandoned warehouse and sleeping in steel trailers with sandbags stacked in the windows. They were stationed on the outskirts of Baquba, a city rife with insurgents in the violent Sunni Triangle. As the soldiers gathered around their Humvees, Reppenhagen, a scout and sniper, figured he knew what his lieutenant was going to say.
There had probably been another roadside bomb nearby. That meant Reppenhagen and his platoon, acting on intelligence that might be good or bad, would drive their Humvees into a nearby neighborhood, seal off entire town blocks, search houses and round up a bunch of men who might or might not have some tie to the insurgency.
What the lieutenant told them, however, had nothing to do with the enemy. They were going to hand out soccer balls to Iraqi kids in the surrounding villages. Reppenhagen was surprised. “You do so much crappy shit over there that when you get a mission to actually help people, it’s encouraging,” he said.
It wasn’t clear who came up with the idea to win over Iraqis with soccer balls. A March 2004 press report from the Pentagon describes a unit of the 1st Armored Division handing out soccer balls in the Karadah district of Baghdad. “The children were thrilled to receive new soccer balls as soldiers tossed the balls to the boys and girls,” the report said. In a December 2004 release, Kiowa helicopter pilots with the 1st Cavalry Division are described tossing soccer balls to grateful kids in an operation aptly dubbed “Operation Soccer Ball.” Spc. Thom Cassidy, who worked in the logistics shop in Reppenhagen’s battalion, recalled that giving out soccer balls to the kids around Baquba was passed down from higher command to a battalion colonel at the base. In any event, Cassidy said, “this was a very, very Army idea. This was the prototypical Army idea.”
At Forward Operating Base Warhorse, Reppenhagen and his fellow soldiers encountered a five-ton truck stacked with large cardboard boxes. They began to unload the truck and open the boxes. There were maybe 50 soccer balls in each box. But the balls had not been inflated. They were all flat. Reppenhagen scoured the boxes. No pumps. What was worse, nobody had bothered to pack the needles to inflate the balls.
Which, of course, the kids quickly figured out. Pretty soon, Reppenhagen recalled, “They were like, ‘What are you doing? What are we supposed to do with this?” When the Humvees began to retrace their route back to the base, the futility of the operation was becoming painfully clear. “Kids were wearing these soccer balls as hats,” Reppenhagen said. “They were kicking them around. They were in trees. They were floating in canals. They were everywhere. There were so many soccer balls.”
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