Friday, December 14, 2007

NOTES FROM DREW: Soccer Ball Project & Thoughts on the Surge

Mr. Hayes,

I will certainly answer your questions to assist with your article. I also want to say thank you so much for your assistance and support. My Soldiers and I get a great deal of joy out of handing out the soccerballs, and it provides a bright spot in most every mission. I am sending my response to your questions to a few other folks on the BCCline. They are friends, family and supporters of myself and my Soldiers. Your questions elicited some thoughts that I've not shared with those folks in the past, so I thought they might enjoy seeing the response.

Attached is a photo of myself, one of the members of my security squad (SGT Carter) and some children that we gave one of the soccer balls provided by Brad and his lodge.

As Brad has told you, I am the Command Sergeant Major for the 720th Military Police Battalion. Our home station is Fort Hood, Texas; and we are currently located on FOB Stryker in Baghdad. We have 8 companies and more than 1300 Soldiers assigned to the battalion. These
subordinate units are spread over the southern portion of Baghdad Province, all of Babil Province and stretch all the way to the Iranian boarder in the southeastern sector of our battle space. So, our Soldiers are spread out! We conduct numerous missions to include securing the American Ambassador and the other U.S. State Department representative here in Iraq. We also have a unit that is responsible for he security of the top 5 Iraqi Government Leaders to include the Prime Minister, the President and other select members of the government. Most of our Soldiers are engaged in training and mentoring the Iraqi Police and Iraqi National Police in our battle space. It is a big mission set and our Soldiers are constantly out and about on the battlefield, interacting with the Iraqi people and they have many opportunities to make a difference here.

With that information as a backdrop, below are my responses to your questions.

1) What is it like to see the reaction of the kids when they receive the balls?

You have to first understand that these children have so little, and that their lives are pretty tough. They love soccer and I routinely see them playing on empty dirt lots, often with a deflated ball that is completely worn out. When they see our trucks approaching, the kids routinely run toward our patrol. There have been many Soldiers who've been giving away soccer balls, other toys and candy for over 4 years now, so the kids know that there is a possibility that we will have something for them. Regardless, when we get out a soccer ball or two, the reaction is pure elation. They are always so happy to get the balls and their little smiles just make my day. When we give out a couple of soccer balls, I get an energy from those kids that lifts my spirit. It is just like nothing I've done before and I love it. I've always been moved by children in need, and I certainly wish I could do more, but this is my small way of letting them know I (we) care. For a little while, the children are happy and that makes me happy. Much of what we do here is ugly, and little of what my Soldiers see is worth remembering (though they likely will never forget). It is the same for the is hard and not filled with a lot of happiness. Giving out a soccer ball to a smiling child is positive memory for both the child and the Soldier.

2) What difference do you feel you're making in the community through the project?

The difference we are making is not something I can know with any degree of certainty right now. The soccer balls, the candy, the toys, the interaction with the young people...I believe all of these things are sowing seeds that might yield a crop in the future. There is a degree of immediate benefit in that I believe our image is improved with the adults as a result of our kind acts toward the children. But when I'm handing out soccer balls and other items; when I'm talking to children here and interacting with them, the CHILDREN are my audience and it is them I am attempting to change. I believe that someday, when this generation of children is leading Iraq, these kids will remember the kindness shown by American Soldiers and they will view us differently as a result. I believe this based on personal experiences in other places.
As an example, when I was stationed in South Korea I had a secretary, Mrs. Lee. Mrs. Lee was a child during the Korean War and she often talked about her love for American Soldiers because they were kind to her and her baby sister when she was a small child during the war. Mrs. Lee and her husband were wealthy by the time I first met here in 1995, but she continued to work for the American Army as a linguist and secretary because she loved Soldiers. She treated my platoon as though we were her children, and that love stemmed from the acts of kind Soldiers in the 1950's. I, and others, am attempting to sow the seeds of that kind of feeling here. My hope is that these kids will grow up to respect and love Americans the way Mrs. Lee did. Time will tell.

3) How have the changing conditions on the ground in the wake of the surge changed how well your project is working?

The short answer to your question is that things are significantly better and violence is WAY down. But we have work yet to do.

The change is hard to detail, but it is dramatic. My battalion is under the tactical control of the 3rd Infantry Division, and we work across the 3rd ID battle space. This area covers some of what was the most hostile areas in Iraq. Those areas have quieted significantly over the past 6 months, and the atmosphere is MUCH more permissive. There are particular areas that we work where attacks were daily business 6 months ago, and now the attacks have almost completely halted. I can feel the difference...its tangible. Markets that previously were abandoned are now open and full of both customers and products. I see children walking to school in the morning by the dozens. When I talk to Iraqi Police leaders or just common folks in the market, they all say that they sense a difference as well. The quote is almost always the same "it is better now, and God willing, it will continue to improve."

Of course, we still have some bad areas and there is still more fighting ahead. One particular area that our battalion works that is particularly bad is Salman Pak. My Soldiers there face danger and attacks on a daily basis. When I'm there you can feel the tension and sense that things are not particularly better. My Soldiers there live hard in a very austere environment with few of the luxuries that are offered on the large Forward Operating Bases. They live and work in what is known as a Joint Security Station (JSS) that is occupied by an MP Platoon, an Infantry (or Armor) Platoon, a small Iraqi National Police element, and regular Iraqi Police. My guys and gals work in a number of these JSS located around our area. These JSS, along with the
small Combat Outpost (COP) are part of General Petreaus' Counterinsurgent Warfare strategy...they get our Soldiers out close to the people, living with them. It is working, but it is tough.

4) How appreciative of the folks back home are you to help contribute to this project?

I can't express how much the support we get from back home means to us as we go about this mission. This soccer ball project is just one more manifestation of that support, and I am absolutely and completely appreciative that folks back home care enough to support what we are doing in this way. It means a lot, and I will always be grateful for ALL of the support I've received during both of my deployments here.
The soccer balls are an investment in the future because they have the potential to help change how the young folks view us. They are also a huge morale builder for the Soldiers now. I thank EVERYONE who has been involved in this project, and particularly Mr. Brad Burns who has been my point of contact during both this deployment and my deployment in 2005-2006.

Additionally, I would add that if you have further questions or think that a phone conversation would give you better material, please let me know and I'll give you a call. I can do that with little problem.

Thanks for your personal involvement in the project and have a great day.

Gauntlet 7
"Soldiers of the Gauntlet"
J. Drew Craig
Command Sergeant Major

-----Original Message-----
From: David Hayes
Sent: Wednesday, December 12, 2007 10:26 PM
To: Craig, Jerry A CSM MSC 720 MP BN
Subject: Soccer ball project story questions

Sgt. Major Craig, Brad Burns gave me your contact information so I could do a story for the local paper here, The Issaquah Press, about your community relations project, handing out soccer balls. I'd like to know a little more about it. Can you answer some quick questions?

1) What is it like to see the reaction of the kids when they receive the balls?

2) What difference do you feel you're making in the community through the project?

3) How have the changing conditions on the ground in the wake of the surge changed how well your project is working?

4) How appreciative of the folks back home are you to help contribute to this project?

That should be enough, unless you have some other comments you'd like to add. I hope to have this written by my deadline Friday. So if you get some free time, the sooner I get your answers, the better it is for my story. Thanks for your help.

P.S. I don't know if Brad told you yet, but last weekend's Elks poker tournament donations went to the soccer ball project. So, I've helped in a little way in this project, too, by just playing cards.

David Hayes
Issaquah Press