In the dusty streets and empty lots of Sadr City, Baghdad, Diwaniya and Mosul, improved security conditions have allowed servicemembers to work at rebuilding a nation. They're dribbling, passing and kicking their way to a better Iraq through a universal language - soccer.

Images of Soldiers on patrol playing soccer with Iraqis is a common image, but the meaning is much deeper than an afternoon "pick-up game" or handing someone a ball. Soccer has become a very effective way for American forces to overcome the language and culture barrier with the Iraqi people and start building friendships that could change the future. And they want folks back home to join in the effort.

Iraq's national sport has spurred the grassroots movement, Operation Soccer Ball. The mission of Operation Soccer Ball is to bring soccer balls to servicemembers who can then hand them out to foster the spirit of friendship between troops and the people of Iraq. While bringing soccer balls to Iraqis has been going on for some time, an effort of this scale hasn't been attempted before.
Chief Warrant Officer Stormy Ripley, personnel recovery, Multi-National Corps - Iraq is helping to expand this program in 2008. She recently saw firsthand how the game of soccer builds relationships with the people of Iraq, especially the children During a mission with the humanitarian group Hearts for Baghdad, Ripley saw how excited people got when someone took out a soccer ball. "Everyone, even pregnant mothers, wanted soccer balls," Ripley said.

"Starting up a game of soccer helps our Soldiers in the field bridge the gap caused by language differences," said Air Force Maj. Ravi Chaudhary, director of operations, personnel recovery, MNC-I. "The kids warm up instantly and everything changes. You start to understand how they feel about us and how we feel about them," he said. "The soccer ball is an incredibly medium for building relationships with the future of Iraq, the kids. No translator required. We're instant friends. The political challenges just seem to fall away."

And the timing is right for building strong relationships in Iraq. With security conditions rapidly improving in the country, the children are coming out, and American servicemembers have more opportunities to work on rebuilding the nation and connecting with its people. "We can work together, not just for Iraq, but for the world in general," Ripley said. These relationships can be strengthened through soccer which helps improve the image that the Iraqi people have of Americans by putting language, culture and personal beliefs aside and focusing on having fun.

A tremendous aspect to this program is that the American public can get involved. Chaudhary and Ripley want it to be a way for the American public to have an impact on the frontlines. "This isn't military driven, it's meant to be something Americans can wrap their arms around," Ripley said.

"It gives the American people back home the opportunity to have direct interactions with Iraqis through our Soldiers," Chaudhary said. "They can rocket themselves directly to the point of effect, and can make a tremendous difference for servicemembers working hard to move Iraq forward"

And many back home are already jumping at the chance to put a soccer ball in the hands of an Iraqi. Ripley said there was a 14 year-old girl who put out a donation box to raise money and purchased 14 soccer balls to send here. E-mail traffic between Operation Soccer Ball and the states indicates that hundreds more soccer balls will be on their way to Iraq in the coming months. John King, a retired Air Force colonel and soccer ball donator said, "Operation Soccer Ball could very well be one of the truly important things going on in Iraq today, because it gives a chance for the American public to mobilize, and actively support the war effort at a time when the tremendous gains made by our troops can continue."

Operation Soccer Ball also needs units on the ground in Iraq to communicate with the program and let them know how many soccer balls they need and arrange for pick up, Ripley said. This way, when units head out on convoys or organize air drops, they have plenty of soccer balls on hand to enhance the relationship building they work on every day outside the wire, Ripley said.

"We're bringing the American message of hope and peace to the Iraqi citizens, and that's a powerful message," Chaudhary said. Throughout history, America has always been a symbol of hope and freedom in the world. Our hope is that America will join in with the troops and continues this message with Operation Soccer Ball."

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