By 1st Lt. Matthew Gregor, 1-87 Inf.June 16, 2008
HAWIJAH, Iraq - The pitch: a return to normalcy. The plan: an unorthodox method of extending a gesture of friendship to the citizens of Hawijah. The intent: to demonstrate that coalition forces are in the district to help rebuild. The approach: the most recognized sport in the country - soccer.
Thursday was like no other since operations began for Soldiers of 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, also known as Task Force Summit, some nine months ago.
A team of TFS Soldiers and a local Iraqi team met on a dusty field in Mahus, near Hawijah. The Hawijah soccer match was historic. In a five-game series, this was the first match between Iraqis and CF Soldiers.
Playing in such a match was a new experience for the visiting team, wearing U.S. Army Physical Fitness Uniforms. With the increase in security measures and outside the protective confines of Forward Operating Base McHenry, the TFS team was able to play without individual body armor.
"This would never have been possible before without the considerable security advances and efforts of the men and women of Task Force Summit," said Lt. Col. Christopher Vanek, 1-87 Infantry commander. "The purpose was simple: to demonstrate a return to normalcy after five years of fighting in the area."
Vanek pointed out the scope of the counterinsurgency fight, when one day Soldiers conduct a task force-level air-assault, and the next, compete on the soccer field against a local Iraqi team.
By executing this effort, "Soldiers of 1-87 (Infantry) probably created at least a thousand or more friends who might think twice about joining an insurgency," Vanek said.
He also highlighted one of the challenges the TFS faces: "communicating the effects generated by our Soldiers towards the Iraqi population and their security from terrorist threats."
Security for Soldiers on the field was a major concern. Thorough planning was conducted before the match and security overwatch via ground and air was visible throughout the game. The same logistical considerations were given to the mission as any other military operation. Vehicles, supplies, even soccer balls were planned for and double checked before the day of the event, according to Vanek.
After changing and a short warm-up session, the game got under way. The ball was rolled into play by the home team to begin the first of two 25-minute halves.
Confidence ran high as the first group of Soldiers kept the score 0-0 for the first five minutes.
This quickly changed as Iraqis scored three unanswered goals by the end of the first half.
Halftime was an event in itself. Throngs of children approached Soldiers wanting everything from soccer balls to the watches off their wrists.
For most players, this was their first time outside the wire interacting closely with the Iraqi public. For those with several patrols under their belts, they knew this attention was normal.
"We made a good connection and had fun doing it. This was the greatest idea so far in this deployment," said Pfc. Rodger Torres Becker, a Soldier assigned to Forward Support Company.
TFS Soldiers once again came out strong in the beginning of the second half, scoring their first and only goal. But Iraqis were determined to show coalition Soldiers whose field they were on and scored three more goals by the end of the game.
The final score was 6-1, favoring the home team. The match concluded with the traditional team handshakes, along with some good-natured ribbing from the winning team.
"Playing conditions made it quite interesting," said Kurt Ruedisueli, goalie for 1-87 Infantry. "The wind kicked up everything, while the dirt field made keeping the ball under control a task in itself."
The closing ceremony included Vanek's presentation of the game ball to the team's captain, who was named most valuable player of the game. Certificates were handed out to all participants, noting their sportsmanship and friendly actions during this historic game.
As the ceremony ended, Iraqis talked with Soldiers about everyday events in a secure environment.
"What a great opportunity for men to meet each other on a different playing field," Vanek said. "This game, the interaction, it's visual proof of the sacrifices both sides have made in the area to secure a peaceful relationship."
He noted the day marked another step in the rebuilding of Iraq.