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
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.
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.
>>view page of Thelen's
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
Everyone loves sports
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.
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
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.
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.
boarders, histories and language. It teaches us universal values,
and football has helped us be better combat advisers.
Paterno said, “Besides pride, loyalty, discipline, heart, and mind,
confidence is the key to all the locks.”
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
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.
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.