Letters from Afghanistan 




Past Letters

Airman to provide inside look at Afghanistan
Airman makes his way to base in Afghanistan
Seven tips on living and working in Afghanistan
The finer points of goat herding: An update from a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan
Soldier’s base comes under attack in suicide mission
The terps: Unsung heroes







Cultural differences slip away when sports comes into play
Soldier teaches basic football rules to Afghans

December 8, 2010

Editor’s note: Lt. Robert Thelen of Oconomowoc is serving a one-year tour of duty in Afghanistan. On a monthly basis, he will update the Oconomowoc community on his actions and the happenings in Afghanistan. You can read his letters exclusively in the Oconomowoc Enterprise.

By 1st Lt. Robert Thelen III
Special to the Enterprise

“People who work together will win, whether it be against complex football defenses, or the problems of modern society.”  - Vince Lombardi

Religion, language, culture, clothes, value of life, view of the world, class, values, and education are a few of the long list that define how different my American adviser team is from our Afghan counterparts.

To bridge that gap between us and them to become “we,” it is imperative to find similarities. The foundation to any relationship here is grounded in where we are the same. One of the first things that I discovered that we have in common between our nations is our love of sports.

>>view page of Thelen's latest pictures
from Afghanistan

Organized sports seem to have a universal appeal, and Afghanistan is no different. During the FIFA World Cup, I saw how connected Afghans were to the world, staying up late to watch the games on their local TV stations just as we did on AFN. They had their favorite teams, they discussed the upsets, and they loved talking about the sport and their certain predictions for the next round.

During Ramadan, my team visited my Afghan unit at night in their barracks to build some rapport. We did not have a translator with us, so we had to work our way through the conversation with our broken Dari, and when the conversation died out, the Afghans turned on their ESPN equivalent and we watched sports highlights from around the world. We spent an hour laughing, cheering and having a great time, and at this moment, we found that sports were a language that everyone understood.


Everyone loves sports

With this knowledge, we started to add different sports into our training and advising. We brought out a bunch of Frisbees and tossed them around, teaching them how to throw. After they became proficient at Frisbee, it became easier to teach them how to conduct patrols.

The trust built by teaching someone how to toss a football was easily translated into combat advising. My team would play ultimate Frisbee, and literally dozens of Afghans would line the sidelines watching, then we would invite them to join us, teach them a little and just have a great time playing. When the summer heat started to give way to the crisp nights of fall, it was time for football season.

There was a selfish reason why I wanted to play touch football over here. Since I was in seventh grade, my friends would play football over Thanksgiving break. I never missed a game, until this year. I figured that if I could not play in the  game with my Oconomowoc friends, I would bring the game to me.

That, and the fact that Afghan soldiers are fast, fearless and quick to pick up sports, we figured it would be fun to play with them. So, we started to teach them how to throw a ball, catch it, run routes and avoid getting tagged. There are no lush green grass fields to play in, so we had a choice between a gravel-filled lot, with some stones the size of an orange, or the all concrete helicopter pad, where we have to pause the game when helicopters land.

Our first game was on the gravel. We split up Americans, translators and Afghans on each team, so it was easy to communicate. After a few falls, a twisted ankle and a fair amount of blood, we decided that the next game would be on the helipad. Also, we wanted to formalize the game a bit and make it into the team sport that it was. Each team had American uniforms, Afghan uniforms and civilian clothes, but we wanted to show team spirit, so I wrote home and got some needed aid.

The Oconomowoc Youth Football Club sent a bunch of jerseys, and my brother and parents sent some footballs. So, we planned a big game and for the first time, Oconomowoc jerseys were worn with pride in Afghanistan.

Some of the Afghans were amazing in their performance, others were still learning, and some just enjoyed being a part of the fun. To keep it simple, we played one-hand touch, one first down halfway across the pad and no rushing the passer. The Afghan style of play, like their fighting, is to never surrender, so a habit that was nearly impossible to break was their need to lateral the ball if they are about to get tackled. Perhaps rugby played an influence, but no Afghan wanted to get tagged with the ball. They would rather fumble it than be down.

This took some serious advising to get them to accept getting tagged and live to play another down than fumble the ball (which they did over and over again). The game ended in a tie, but the lessons from the game were not forgotten. We played a few more times since, and each and every time, the Afghans get better and better. Plus, off the field, the teamwork, the trust and the universal language of sports has become stronger and stronger.


Building bridges

Perhaps the greatest lesson from Afghans and Americans playing football is that despite the hundreds of things that make us so different, from religion to culture to our temporal view of the world, all we really need is one similarity to build bridges. Teamwork, friendly competition, fair play, these are not only the tenets of a great football game, but also a great country and army.

Sports transcend boarders, histories and language. It teaches us universal values, and football has helped us be better combat advisers.

Like Joe Paterno said, “Besides pride, loyalty, discipline, heart, and mind, confidence is the key to all the locks.”

Football helps us open many of these locks. We (my CA team and the Afghans) have found many things in common now, but that first rope bridge was strung with watching some sports and playing a friendly game of touch football.

When the frozen ground of winter starts to thaw into the renewal of spring, maybe we will teach them how to play baseball. Most know how to play cricket, and after trying to understand that sport for six months now, I am confident I can teach baseball in a day.

Values like pride, loyalty, discipline, heart, mind and confidence, like JoePa said, can be learned on the field and applied to many of life’s endeavors, including combat advising in Afghanistan. 

Note: A huge thanks to Oconomowoc Youth Football; your donation of used jerseys really turned our pickup game into something greater! Also, on 26 December, I pin on captain! Would like to thank my family for all of their support thus far in my military career.