Soldiers Bring America's Pastime to Afghan Children
By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 21, 2002 A snapshot of two Afghan boys sent home by a soldier to his wife started a chain of events that would come to capture the attention of President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Sgt. 1st Class Jay Smith, a civil affairs engineer, had sent his wife a photo of two boys he'd befriended. Smith's wife sent gifts for the two - used baseball gloves and a ball -- in her next care package.
"Jay gave them to the boys, and it just caught on fire," Sgt. 1st Class Victor Andersen, Smith's teammate and friend, said in relaying the tale.
Andersen and Capt. Britton London, both from the 96th Civil Affairs Battalion, Fort Bragg, N.C., recently shared some of their experiences in Afghanistan during an interview in the Pentagon.
Andersen explained that after hearing how much the boys had liked the baseball equipment, a member of Smith's church "took that as his calling" and sent enough baseball gear for two teams.
"We had the kids in camp and their friends playing, then we went down to the school when it was letting out and explained how the game's played," Andersen said. "We started just playing catch with them."
The next step was to whittle a tent peg into a baseball bat. "It was a pretty big tent peg," Andersen said.
Before long, weekly pick-up games were a hit in the Orgun Valley region, where the men were working. The region's minister of education wanted to learn more, so the team showed him a videotape of a baseball game someone had sent from the States.
"The minister of education thought it was great," Andersen said. "He understood it was the American game, and he thought it would be a great idea for the kids."
The civil affairs team members even had a copy of the Little League Baseball rulebook translated into Pashtun, the dominant local dialect.
Andersen admits to leaving out a few of the game's finer points. "We didn't tell them some of the rules as far as stealing bases and sliding," he said. "We tried to keep it as safe as we could (because) they're playing barefoot wearing their pajamas."
Players were supposed to be between 10 and 15 years old, but Andersen said it was next to impossible to confirm this because most Afghans don't know their ages.
He slyly suggested one pitcher might be "a ringer." "He was probably 16 or 17," Andersen said with a chuckle.
Interest in these local games spread far beyond Afghanistan. Rumsfeld mentioned them in congressional testimony in July and later during a Pentagon press briefing.
"One civil affairs team has even introduced Afghan kids to Little League baseball," Rumsfeld told the Senate Armed Services Committee during testimony July 31 on progress in Afghanistan.
"What a difference a year makes," he told reporters during an Aug. 20 Pentagon briefing lauding the civil affairs teams. "The Afghan youngsters are back in school, they're learning to play baseball instead of cowering in fear and hiding from the Taliban's religious beliefs."
Andersen said it was "kind of a big thing for us" when the team heard the secretary of defense was talking about them.
The secretary's interest prompted Anderson and the rest of the soldiers to have members of the two Afghan baseball teams sign balls for President Bush. Andersen and London had been invited to a White House ceremony in which Bush was to highlight the humanitarian successes to date in Afghanistan. Both balls were signed by members of the teams and inscribed, "To the Honorable George Bush" in Pashtun.
"Our soldiers wear the uniforms of warriors, but they are very compassionate people," Bush said after London and Andersen presented him with the signed balls Oct. 11 at the White House. "The Afghan people are really beginning to see the true strength of our country."
London said the civil affairs team used baseball to reach out to the Afghan people through their children. "Baseball is American. It's home and apple pie," he said during the Pentagon interview. "We used baseball to show the people of Afghanistan that, 'Hey, we're here to help you, but we want to establish relationships with you, too.' Baseball was one vehicle we used to do that."