By Sgt. A.M. LaVeyOctober 23, 2011
AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq, Oct. 23, 2011 -- Members of the Iraqi men's mid-to-long distance Olympic running team met with United States Forces-Iraq service members for a running clinic and five kilometer run here Oct. 23.
"We asked them to come down and share their training routine and some of the challenges of training that they face here in Iraq with us," said Lt. Gen. Frank G. Helmick, deputy commanding general for operations, United States Forces-Iraq.
The team, half of its members also in the Iraqi army running club, have interacted with American troops once before, but it was limited to a game of soccer.
"We love the Americans," said Waud Disman, half-marathoner and team member. "We wanted to meet and run with them."
Military relations have been strengthened through sport participation since the ancient beginning of the Olympic Games and an event like this is a type of diplomacy that can transcend cultural differences and bring Soldiers from different nations together.
"There are no nationalities or religions in sports," said Helmick. "Athletics and fitness transcends all those different boundaries."
American forces, throughout the last eight years, have made it a point to use sports to reach out to the Iraqi people.
"I think it is most important that we expose as many Iraqis as we can to our military" said Helmick. "Our service members are great ambassadors to the world."
"I really think that are no relationships between countries, there are only relationships between people," said Helmick, "and we are working to strengthen these relationships in Iraq every day."
Unlike American professional athletes, these runners receive only a living stipend of the equivalent of 200 U.S. dollars a month, which the runners must use to purchase their own equipment, pay for training and feed their families.
After hearing that some of the team was running in bare feet because they couldn't afford shoes, USF-I service members presented boxes of shoes to the team before it left.
"I am amazed that they can perform so well with so few resources," said Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, director of strategic effects, USF-I and one of the runners who ran with the team today. "I think it says volumes about the love of sport and the pride of representing one's country."
At a presentation after the run, one of the Iraqi runners shared his team's thoughts with the assembled runners.
"Today was very different from a normal day in our lives," said Hamid Kadhim, a team member from Baghdad. "We thank you. We will remember this day for the rest of our lives."
As American forces prepare for the transition to Iraq by the end of the year, events like this show the shared level of commitment of the American service member to their Iraqi comrades.
"I could not help but think of how far we have come in this country," said Buchanan. "The opportunities the Iraqis now have, ranging from growing security to economic development to strengthening democracy to an inspirational Olympic team, have been created through a great deal of sacrifice, both Iraqi and American."
"My greatest hope is that the Iraqis reach their potential," said Buchanan. "If today's run was any indication, the future is bright indeed."