The Kuwaiti Soccer Ball by Josephine Thomas

Soccer, the beautiful game. The game that brings people of all cultures together.

After Operation Desert Storm ended in the latter part of March 1991, a little-known match between American logistics forces and a small Kuwaiti Army unit occurred in Camp Virginia, a few hours away from Kuwait City. When I first saw the war-weary Kuwaiti soldiers they were a dirty, camo-faced bunch wearing filthy army uniforms. They were directed to our camp for a layover and ended up staying with us just a mere few days.

As the logistics warehouse supervisor in camp, my soldiers and I loaded boxes of surplus brown t-shirts, socks, men’s underwear, desert camo pants with chocolate chip design, personal hygiene items, cases of bottled water, and Meals-Ready-To-Eat (MREs or pre-package, high-caloric food; we also opened each box to remove any meals containing pork, so as not to offend our guests). We brought these items to the Kuwaitis. It was Christmas in March for them.

Grateful, crying Kuwaiti soldiers kissed us on both sides of the cheeks. Some of the men hugged me and held on, I surmise, because I was the only female in their midst. Their leader yelled at them in Arabic, perhaps ordering them to help our guys off-load the ATVs. Which they did. But I also surmise that he told his troops to leave me alone. Which they did, too.

“We are friendship.” The leader said as he shook my hand once and promptly disengaged. In his mid-30s with a scar on the left side of his leather-like brown face, he spoke in a quiet, deep voice. His rank was that of a senior sergeant, with upside down chevrons something similar to British military rank.

I attempted to greet him in Arabic, “peace be with you,” but I mispronounced the words.

“I am so sorry your Arabic is so terrible.” He laughed.

“You’re not offended?” I meekly said.

“No,” said the leader. “But I am very thankful for the gifts bestowed upon us.”

During their stay, the leader asked me if they could use our makeshift soccer field and portable goals for their guys to play.

“Sure, no problem.”

Wearing untucked brown t-shirts, desert brown/tan camo pants loosely tied at the ankles, and tennis shoes, these Kuwaiti soldiers were laughing and playing like little boys with no worries in the world. Two weeks ago, they were expelling Iraqi forces from Kuwaiti territory. But now, with the war over, who wouldn’t be happy going home? We would be home in the grand U-S of A within a week as well.

“Americans, come play with us.” The leader yelled and waved me over.

I played soccer in college, so I assembled a ragtag team on the spot. This was to be a friendly game between our two units to foster friendship and cultural understanding. We wore our typical physical training uniform: light gray shorts, gray Army t-shirts, ankle-high white socks, and tennis shoes.

With drops of sweat rolling off our faces, we jogged up and down the field of sand and were having sheer fun, even when the Kuwaitis scored three goals in less than five minutes. Our goalkeeper, a tall husky built former high school football offensive lineman, was determined to stop the fourth onslaught. The Kuwaiti strikers weaved through our defense as if we were not even there. This small, agile player even blew right by me and knocked me clean on my ass—holy smokes, this guy is serious!

I watched as our goalkeeper focused on the approaching strikers and how they were passing the ball with their road runner like feet—the lopsided ball was kicked to the right, to the left, then straight down the middle. The striker kicked a stunner and was blocked where the soccer ball rebounded off the goalkeeper’s hands straight up into the air. The goalkeeper leaped like a

kangaroo and snatched the ball, cradled it in his chest, and hit the sand. He remained in the fetal position for a moment.

We ran toward our hero and helped him to his feet. As our goalkeeper stood, holding on to the soccer ball, he yelled in joy as if he had just won the championship match. We surrounded him, hopping up and down as if we were on pogo sticks. We patted his thick shoulders and slapped his head. But the goalkeeper’s facial expression of joy turned to horror when he glanced at the ball. He dropped the odd-shaped soccer ball, the main seam came apart during play. The ball appeared to have two dead eyes staring at us.

The Kuwaiti soccer ball was in fact the severed head of an Iraqi soldier, which had been placed meticulously within the shell of the ball. The leader and his soldiers erupted in laughter and pointed at us because we stood with stunned faces, mouths gaped. Before the ball was snatched up, the leader tied the loose canvas strings along the main seam. He kicked the ball away, and the happy Kuwaitis chased after the ball and continued to play.

Our excited, chattering soldiers walked back to the American compound.

“Dawg, did you see that shit?”

“Man, those dudes are badass crazy.”

“I ain’t playing goalie no more.”

“Dude, you suck. Don’t worry about it.”

Soldiers laughed as they walked away. I wondered if that was nervous laughter.

I looked at the Kuwaiti sergeant as I was still trying to register the moment. “I don’t understand.”

The leader patted my shoulder and said in a matter-of-fact way, “Pray your country is never invaded and your people ravished like dogs.” He paused and smiled, probably relishing my dazed facial expression. “Another match tomorrow, perhaps?”

“Well, only if we use one of our game balls.”

After 20 years of service and three tours in Iraq, Josephine Thomas retired from the U.S. Army.  Thereafter, she completed the Pathway to Publication program at the University of Wisconsin Writers’ Institute.  She is currently working on a novel while taking creative writing classes at Hagerstown Community College.  Josephine is also a member of the Atlanta Writers Club.  Married to her husband, Robert, for almost 20 years, they enjoy their tranquil life in West Virginia.