Prince William Soldier Works to Give Soccer Balls to Afghan Children

Lt. Col. James Overbye in Afghanistan's Zabol province in February, with children he has given soccer balls to as part of Operation Soccer Smiles.
Lt. Col. James Overbye in Afghanistan's Zabol province in February, with children he has given soccer balls to as part of Operation Soccer Smiles. (Courtesy Of James Overbye)

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By Jennifer Buske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 26, 2009

Army Lt. Col. James Overbye says he doesn't speak the language of the Afghan children he sees daily, but that has not stopped him from interacting with them.

Instead of using words, Overbye uses one simple tool -- a soccer ball -- to forge relationships and strengthen military efforts in an area plagued by conflict and poverty.

"A member of the Afghan National Army said, 'It's better to have the children learning to play soccer than learning to fight,' " said Overbye, 45, a Gainesville resident. "And, 50 percent of the Zabol province is under the age of 18, so we come in contact with a lot of children who could use a soccer ball to play with."

Through his organization, Operation Soccer Smiles, Overbye and other service members in Afghanistan collect soccer balls from people in the United States and deliver them to the children living in Zabol province.

"I just love what [the organization] is doing," said Osbourn Park High School sophomore Myranda Emery, an avid soccer player who started collecting balls for the cause after reading about the group. "The kids there don't have as much as I do, and I thought maybe if they got something I have and love, then they could pass it on to their friends and enjoy it too."

Overbye, the leader of an embedded transition team that trains the Afghan National Army, said Operation Soccer Smiles unofficially began when his group deployed in November. Shortly after the group's arrival, an officer received a shipment of soccer balls from people in the United States and decided to have the Afghan army distribute them to children.

The idea was a hit, Overbye said, so his team began brainstorming how to get more soccer balls to children.

Overbye said he contacted the organization Any Soldier, which fills care packages for those serving overseas. Instead of requesting personal items, Overbye asked for soccer balls.

And, he said, thanks to Texas resident Susie Junek, his request was granted.

"I've been supporting the troops for several years, and I knew soccer was popular over there," Junek said. "I also wasn't surprised he was asking not for himself but for someone else, because that is the mind-set of our troops."

A 1979 graduate of Texas A&M, Junek called up her alma mater and began soliciting soccer balls from the women's soccer team at the university, she said. Soon after, 50 balls sporting maroon stars and the school's logo arrived in Afghanistan.

Overbye said most residents of Zabol struggle daily, so when children are handed something as simple as a soccer ball, it can bring a smile to their faces.


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