Outside the Wire



(page 1 of 3)

Daniel Merritt’s home away from home is the furthest of cries from where he grew up. Scorched by the sun, rife with poverty and battered by war, Qadisiya Province sits eighty miles south of Baghdad.

As a first lieutenant in a U.S. Army military-police unit, Daniel, and the forty-six men of his platoon, spends his days and many of his nights outside the wire, away from the relative safety of his fortified base camp. His charge is to train and work with the Iraqi police; patrol this Shiite stronghold, including its capital city of Diwaniya; and drive out insurgents and militia fighters.

He is only five-foot-nine and 175 pounds. But in combat apparel, the former Darien resident cuts a forbidding figure. Like most of the American soldiers, he is laden with 60 to 70 pounds of protective gear, no small burden in a place where the temperature often hits 120 degrees, but much welcomed should danger strike. He is armed with an M-4 carbine, complete with thirty-round magazine, grenade launcher and scope. He also carries a 9-mm Beretta pistol. If that’s not enough, he can summon arms of even greater might, from machine guns to rocket launchers. Not to mention his ever-growing supply of soccer balls.

Improbable as it sounds, the latter may be one of the more promising defenses Daniel and his men have from harm. And in the long run, it might serve America’s interests in Iraq better than even the most fearsome military hardware.

Daniel, who is twenty-seven, calls his program Operation Soccer Ball. Basically, it involves distributing soccer balls — hundreds of them so far — to Iraqi children. He is among an untold number of American soldiers who have seen a human need beyond their immediate mission and reached out to help. On their own initiative, in efforts big and small, troops have provided Iraqi citizens with everything from clothing to baby formula to soccer balls. And while Daniel’s program may not be the first of its kind, or even in name, it is already having a positive impact on both givers and receivers.

“This thing is simple to do,” Daniel says, in a telephone conversation from Iraq. “It’s cheap. It’s effective. It makes kids smile. And it really can save lives.”

It all started this spring. Daniel and his men were involved in a popular charitable program called Beanies for Baghdad, in which the soldiers gave out stuffed animals to kids in their area. One day they brought along some old soccer balls and gave them to the youngsters as well. Daniel had heard that the Iraqis were manic about soccer, but nothing prepared him for the unbridled glee he witnessed that day. The kids, as he describes the scene, “went ape” when given the balls.

Daniel was so taken by the response that he started calling and e-mailing family members in Connecticut and elsewhere, asking them to spread the word and send him all the soccer balls they could muster. One person e-mailed another, who e-mailed another. A website went up. Before long everyone from school kids to Jazzercize classes was rounding up soccer balls and shipping them to Daniel. Within a couple months, he had received 1,000 balls, with more coming and no end in sight.

It was an idea that everyone could get behind, no matter how they felt about the war. Forget politics. This was about doing something nice for kids who were living in hostile territory, as well as showing support for the troops. Such an effort can only foster goodwill between U.S. forces and everyday Iraqis. It could be the difference, for example, between citizens giving warning to the soldiers or allowing them to venture down a street where a roadside bomb awaits.

“It’s much more than handing out soccer balls,” writes Captain Eric M. Wigley, Daniel’s company commander in Iraq, in an e-mail response to New Canaan •Darien Magazine. “It’s an aspect of the larger solution: community policing. [Daniel] truly gets it, and his platoon and the police they partner with are extremely fortunate because he does.”

What the program spells for the more distant future is an open question. Perhaps Daniel has stumbled upon an improvement on that earthy adage about how to win a people’s hearts and minds: Maybe it is soccer balls that are the key. “Think about your own childhood,” says Peter Hawkins, a longtime Darien resident who coached Daniel in youth soccer. “Here you’ve got children in a war-torn zone. What effect might an act of kindness have on them, not just for today but for the rest of their lives? And in the same vein, how much is a harsh act going to stick with them? That’s a sobering thought, for good or for bad.”

On the ground in Iraq, it is uncertain who enjoys the giveaways more, Daniel or the children. When recounting how the youngsters respond to receiving the soccer balls, he sounds as exuberant as any of them: “Some kids will grab it and they’ll run, like, ‘Holy s—, I just got a soccer ball!’ They’ll run because they don’t want any of the other kids to take it from them, or they don’t want the bigger kids to jack ’em for their soccer ball, or they don’t want us to take it back, though we’re never going to take the soccer ball back.

“Some of them will freakin’ start crying. Some of them, they just light up like you’d think they would. Some will start playing immediately. Some will grab it, they’ll go hide it, then come back and try to get another one.”

Wordsworth famously wrote that the child is father of the man. And just as the poet never lost his thrill at the sight of a rainbow, Daniel never forgot the joys of laughing and running and booting a soccer ball on Darien’s playing fields. The children he sees in Iraq score their goals on parched dirt, not manicured grass or synthetic turf. Still, he catches a glimpse of himself whenever he watches them.

“I grew up with everything,” Daniel says. “These kids are growing up with nothing. But they are like I was in the sense that they just want to have a good time. They want to play soccer with their buddies. They want to drink soda pop. They want to sit and smile. They want to grow up.”

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