From the War Zone – The Soccer Game That Changed Lives in Afghanistan

Article originally posted in July 2014 by The Good Men Project. Amplified Soccer featured this article in Issue 2 of Amplified Soccer Athlete.

Jamie Reidy is a former US Army officer turned author. His first book "Hard Sell: The Evolution of A Viagra Salesman" served as the basis for the movie "Love and Other Drugs."

What happens when very different nations come together to play the world’s favorite game? Jamie Reidy learns about peace-building from a few soccer-loving American service members.

On a morning in December 2004, U.S. Army Major Suzy Mitchem got a strange phone call at her desk in Afghanistan. An eleven-year veteran of the JAG Corps, she was serving as the Deputy Staff Judge Advocate for the Combined Joint Task Force 76 at Bagram Airfield, twenty-five miles north of Kabul in the eastern part of the country. On the phone, a representative from the base’s Host Nation Relations’ office told her she would have a visitor late that afternoon. A confident and witty redhead, Major Mitchem assumed there must be some mistake, since she hadn’t asked to meet with anyone outside the Coalition. “It’s the local tribal elder, the one everybody has been trying to hard to connect with. He specifically requested you. And he’s bringing other people to meet you, too.” Hanging up the phone, Suzy asked herself, Why the heck would an important tribal elder want to meet me?

All service members suffer from loneliness on deployment, struggling to fill the void of someone or something left back home. For Major Mitchem, the separation from her husband and three-year old son proved particularly vexing. Stationed at Schofield Barracks on the north shore of Oahu, she had flown to Afghanistan from Honolulu. En route to the airport, a tearful Suzy tried to explain to Camden why she had to go away for such a long time – seven months. Not surprisingly, her little boy didn’t understand. Did she? Her husband pulled over, making an unscheduled stop at Toys R Us. Inside, Suzy instructed Camden to pick out a stuffed animal. He chose a bear he promptly named Bear. His mommy told him, “Every time you miss me, just give Bear a hug.” 

Recalling that gut-wrenching day for a mid-March phone interview, the former scholarship soccer player at George Washington University explains, “The problem was that I didn’t get a ‘Bear’ for myself. I needed something to hug whenever I missed Camden.”

Lonely, homesick and struggling with guilt over leaving her child, Suzy found some solace in an old friend.

“Soccer players just find each other,” explains Emily (Wnuk) Anders, a former Army first lieutenant stationed at Bagram at the same time as Major Mitchem. “I don’t even know how I heard about it, but I ended up at the Korean compound where they played a pickup game every evening,” Emily says in an April phone interview from her Washington, D.C. home. After lettering twice in varsity soccer at West Point, she was thrilled to find a regular match on base.

She then recruited a second female player. Suzy recalls, “Emily was roommates with one of the captains in my office, who told her that I’d played soccer at GW, and so she invited me to join – the game was ‘invitation only.’ It was a nice break in the day. Plus, the Koreans had great chow!” The major seized the opportunity to join a community that had once meant so much to her. Obviously, nothing could remove the pain of missing her son and husband, but the camaraderie provided a welcome relief. “I was one of the worst ones out there,” she laughs. “A lot of rust fell off. But Emily was a helluva player and fresh out of college; she could hang with the guys, no problem.”

There weren’t just Americans and Koreans kicking the ball around. Service members from Britain, New Zealand, Romania, Poland, Jordan and Slovakia joined the nightly fun, too. Suzy and Emily were the only women, though.

U.S. Army First Lieutenant Josh Walters also found his way to the Korean compound. A high school girls’ soccer coach back in Florida, Josh served with an Air Defense Artillery unit in the National Guard. But, as he wryly notes, “The Afghans didn’t really have an enemy air force for us to defend against.” Now an assistant women’s soccer coach at defending national champion UCLA, he sat down with me in his office one evening in early May. Obviously, he prefers wearing Adidas t-shirts and shorts to desert fatigues. In Afghanistan, the lack of a real world mission forced the unit commander to find different roles for his troops or else they’d sit idle. Fortuitously, Lieutenant Walters got tasked with Host Nation Relations, a.k.a. building connections with locals.

Instantly, he sensed they’d found the right man for the job. “I knew I could use soccer to reach some of the people in these villages, to bridge the gap. Soccer was our common language; we didn’t have to talk about war, we could just play soccer and build trust.” Using the world’s most popular sport to sow peace in a farrow war zone – a simultaneously simple and ambitious concept.

Walters worked closely with Squadron Commander Randall, a British Royal Air Force (RAF) officer assigned to the same operations unit for Bagram Airfield. “He served as a driving force behind the match.” (Note: unfortunately, Josh can’t recall his colleague’s first name. I was unable to track down the Brit using online searches.) Initially, their idea called for the Coalition Team to host a friendly match on base against the best local Afghan players. For troop safety, that obviously made the most sense. But then Josh and the RAF officer left their safe haven for a trip to Charikar, a town six miles northeast of Bagram Airfield.

“We visited a local school. After the meeting, he and I went for a walk outside and rambled onto a dusty field.” Enclosed by walls, it clearly once hosted athletic contests. Eureka! “That’s when it went from ‘Hey, let’s play a pickup game inside the compound,’ to ‘Hey, let’s do something really cool outside the compound!’” Immediately, the two Host Nation Relations officers knew they’d scored a winner.

“It took a lot of man hours to plan the match, but then we got pretty quick buy-in from the higher ups.” Their Afghan counterparts reacted similarly. “The local governor of the province was all about the game. He thought it would help restore order and boost morale.”

Once approved, many other people got involved – not surprising, considering this friendly soccer game would actually put the lives of servicemen and servicewomen from six countries at risk. The drive would take thirty minutes and, although the Taliban had been rousted from the area, enemies still lurked. As the result, the players would require an armed convoy to and from base. “The Force Protection guys became our security guys. They came up with a security plan and an ex-fil plan (exfiltration, i.e. getting the Coalition team out of there in case anything went wrong at the stadium). Also, we met several times with the locals in Charikar to make sure they would have their own security, too.”

Coalition player Colonel Chris Mitchiner, who was a Major in 2004, knew all too well how risky the venture would be. As the Intelligence Officer on the Combined Joint HQ’s Operations unit, he got frequent intel updates on enemy activity in the area. He now serves on the Staff of the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, working in the Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute. Speaking to me in a mid-March phone call, he says, “I thought it best not to share everything I knew with the rest of the team.”

Lieutenant Walters told the Coalition players their uniforms would consist of whatever they normally wore for Physical Training (PT), i.e. organized calisthenics. For the U.S. Army personnel, this meant light grey t-shirts, black shorts and running shoes (Apparently, soccer cleats weren’t on the War Zone Deployment packing list.) On top of their shirts, everybody would wear the same red, mesh jerseys.

The higher ups for both sides agreed U.S. forces would do a mine sweep of the pitch several hours prior to the match and then place the facility on lockdown to ensure it stayed secure. All that remained was the soccer match itself.

But that would be too easy, right? The night before, Lieutenant Walters received specific instructions from the U.S. command regarding the game uniforms: the female players had to wear their long-sleeved sweatshirts and sweatpants in order to cover their bare arms and legs, so as to not offend the Islamic players and spectators. The males, however, would play in their shorts and t-shirts. “I wasn’t sure how they” – Major Mitchem and Lieutenant Wnuk – “would react to that,” Josh said in a follow up email.

“Count me out,” Suzy informed him with no hesitation. “I’m not a woman in this case. I’m a U.S. Army officer. If they don’t want me to wear the same stuff as the guys, then I’m not playing.” Josh swallowed hard as Lieutenant Wnuk agreed with her superior. Suzy recalls, “Emily said, “I’m doing whatever Major Mitchem is doing!’” For her part, Emily does not recall saying that, but she added, “The 24-year old me? Yeah, I could see me just following her lead.”

Lieutenant Walters suddenly had two problems to deal with in very little time. First, he’d promised the Afghans that two American female officers would be playing soccer; if they did not, it would be an embarrassment to the U.S. Second, the team roster had already been trimmed by the Korean military commander’s refusal to let his troops leave the base due to security risks.

On top of that blow, the Jordanian government kept its players out of the match. “There was already enough tension with an Islamic military taking part in operations in another Islamic country,” Walters says. “It was supposed to be a secret that Jordanians were even in the country. But it wasn’t much of a secret.” Regardless, the Jordanian government rejected their troops’ request to play. If any players got hurt during the match, Suzy and Emily’s absence meant the Coalition might not have a full team on the field.

Walters called his bosses and shared Major Mitchem’s and Lieutenant Wnuk’s responses to the uniform change. He explained the problems this decision created. Everybody went to bed that night without an answer as to how to proceed.

In total darkness the next morning, Suzy and Emily joined their teammates in one of two Light Military Tactical Vehicles with interiors fortified by sandbags. Gun trucks bracketed their convoy. Every American service member wore sweatpants and sweatshirts – due to the cold. Ominously, they also sported flak vests and Kevlar helmets, and carried their assigned weapons. “That’s when I first realized how serious this was,” Emily, now a married mother of two and an elementary school teacher, says.

“It was quiet on the truck.” Suzy’s voice on the phone drops an octave, saying, “I had no idea it was gonna be so dangerous.” She recalls sitting between Lieutenant Wnuk and Major Mitchiner, a former Army Ranger, and musing on their firearms. “Because Mitchiner and I were ‘field grades’ (majors and above) we carried 9-mils and because Emily was a ‘company grade’ (captains or below) she had an M-16.” Suzy pauses in her story. “So I was looking at them, and I said only half jokingly, ‘It would make me feel a lot better if you two would trade weapons!’ I mean, we’d have been better off with the ex-Army Ranger having the M-16, right?!” She laughs darkly. “You had no idea what was going to happen. It was definitely nerve wracking.” Mitchiner, also married with two children, explains, “When you roll in that big of a convoy, you present yourself as a big target. It’s like you’re telling the bad guys, ‘Shoot at us ‘cause we’re important!’ So, yeah, I was nervous.”

They arrived safely without incident. Still, the gun trucks took up strategic positions outside the stadium, providing protection during the game. “I thought that was pretty nuts,” Emily admits.

Nothing could have prepared the Coalition players for the scene that awaited them in Charikar. Throngs of people lined the street leading to the stadium. “The Afghans had advertised the match on fliers and on the radio!” Josh Walters says, shaking his head in amazement.

The local organizers’ efforts worked; more than a thousand fans showed up. “But there were no women in the crowd,” Emily notes. People sat atop the walls and watched from tree branches. Ten other soccer teams attended, wearing their uniforms in a show of national unity.

Hours before the match, local fans await the opening of the gates. (Photo courtesy: Josh Walters)

Hours before the match, local fans await the opening of the gates. (Photo courtesy: Josh Walters)

But there was still no word as to whether Suzy and Emily would be allowed to play in the same uniforms as their male teammates. “It was tense,” Mitchiner says.

Inside the stadium, they found a rudimentary soccer scene. The pitch proved to be a dirt field. “Like a dust bowl,” Colonel Mitchiner remembers. After watering down the field before the match, groundskeepers laid down white lines not with the standard chalk but with lime powder. “The goals weren’t actual goals,” explains Walters, yet another married father of two. (Note: he and his wife fell in love as the result of the war. She took over coaching the high school girls’ soccer team in Florida after he left to serve in Afghanistan. The players raved to her about Josh, planting the seeds of their relationship.) The goals “were put together with piping from, like, entrance/exit gates, which is why they were black and white.”

U.S. security forces pose behind makeshift goals. (Photo courtesy: Josh Walters)

U.S. security forces pose behind makeshift goals. (Photo courtesy: Josh Walters)

For the locals, the match would serve as a sort of exorcism; no soccer had been played on the field since the Taliban had banned soccer. Even more important and symbolic: the stadium had been the site of public executions.

Finally, Josh got the word from his higher ups: the women could play in shorts and T-shirts. “I just wanted to play soccer,” Emily says, “So, that was such great news.”

The Coalition Team would need all hands on deck, as the Afghan leadership had stacked their squad. “They brought guys from all over the country,” Walters says, his face filled with disbelief. “Some of them played in the professional leagues in Iran and came back, because the Afghans did not want to lose to us.” I asked all four players how old their opponents were. Interestingly, I got answers ranging from high school to mid-30s. “Because of poor nutrition and just really tough lives,” Josh explains, “it’s really difficult to tell anybody’s age over there.”

Before the match, two color guards participated in a flag ceremony and both the American and Afghan national anthems were played over the loudspeakers. Afghan Olympic Committee members looked on, as did a local tribal elder who was vitally important to America’s efforts in the region. A U.S. Army colonel attended, as well, enjoying tea at the dignitaries’ table.  The local governor spoke, adding gravitas to the situation.

Afghan dignitaries and a U.S. colonel share a table with a prime view of the action. (Photo courtesy: Josh Walters)

Afghan dignitaries and a U.S. colonel share a table with a prime view of the action. (Photo courtesy: Josh Walters)

At last, the referee blew the whistle and play began. Josh remembers, “Once the game got started, all the tension went away. It was fun. For that one brief moment, none of us were in Afghanistan anymore. We were wherever our soccer dreams took us.”

Emily was one of the eleven starters. “When she took the field, it was electric,” Walters says. “It was like the fans were at the circus for the first time.” The home team scored an early goal, but that did not prompt the noisiest crowd reaction.

“The first time I touched the ball,” Emily remembers, “It was crazy. Insanely crazy.” Colonel Mitchiner adds, “They went bonkers.” The female American lieutenant threw elbows while jostling for the ball, stunning the Afghan players and crowd with her willingness to mix it up. “They couldn’t believe I would play like a man!” she laughs. “The crowd just kept yelling.” Suzy played, but only for about fifteen minutes each half. Now retired from the Army and living in Memphis with her husband and two sons, she says, “I didn’t deserve more time – the other team was too fast – but it was important for me to get out on that field and show the Afghans that it wasn’t just a young woman who could play.”

When Suzy first told me this story, I could not get over all the Hollywood elements present in it: homesick mother serves her country in a war zone; troops from eight different nations find camaraderie through soccer; a once talented player kicks off rust; nation building efforts lead to a match against Afghans that would take place off-base – a security nightmare; the two female Americans are told to wear different uniforms in order to appease an archaic and sexist culture, only to protest and then win the right to dress like their male teammates; Coalition forces build trust with locals through the world’s most popular sport. Caught up in the narrative, I couldn’t help myself and blurted out, “Did we win?!”

At my question, her voice grew steely. “We won the second half.” The home team won 3-1, after going into halftime with a three-goal lead. Emily’s competitiveness sparks through the phone line, “Not to make an excuse, but, c’mon, we were wearing running shoes and they had on cleats.” Mitchiner gives a more realistic assessment, “I don’t wanna say it was ‘uncompetitive,’ but it kinda felt like they were the Harlem Globetrotters and we were the Washington Generals – we were definitely gonna lose. But there was nothing but good will in the stadium; everybody on both teams had a great time.”

A fan watches from a tree as Coalition players (red) take on Afghans (green and white). (Photo courtesy: Emily Anders)

A fan watches from a tree as Coalition players (red) take on Afghans (green and white). (Photo courtesy: Emily Anders)

After the game, the Coalition players shook hands with their opponents and both teams swapped banners, a worldwide soccer tradition. Then the crowd rushed the field and, for a moment, security appeared in jeopardy. But the Americans relaxed when the cause of the fans’ stampede became obvious. “The Afghan guys just fell all over themselves getting to the women,” Josh explains. “They were such rock stars. All the guys waited in line to get pictures with them!”

Colonel Mitchiner remembers amazed children touching the women’s hair and bare arms, over and over again. Regarding her popularity, Suzy cracks, “Apparently, nobody had ever seen a redhead in Afghanistan.” But in her next breath she sounds awestruck. “I remember being overcome with emotion, like, ‘Wow, did we really just do this?’”

Yes, they had. Emily recalls taking in the scene and wishing, “That our playing on that field hopefully made a small difference in how the Afghan men viewed women and maybe, just maybe, we made a positive difference for the women of Afghanistan.”

That’s an impossible thing to measure, though, isn’t it?

Why the heck would a local tribal elder want to meet me?

Hours after receiving the phone call from the Host Nation Relations’ office, Suzy walked into the garrison building as instructed to meet with the local tribal elder, a man of grave importance to the U.S. efforts in the region.

Inside a small room, she found an imposing, middle-aged Afghan man waiting for her. With a medium length grey beard, he wore a khaki cap and a matching overcoat. Speaking Dari, he motioned to the two girls standing behind him. They wore long garments called jihabs and had scarves wrapped around their heads and necks. The translator explained that the tribal elder had brought his two granddaughters to meet Major Mitchem, “So the girls could see what was possible for a woman to accomplish in this world.”

Now, Suzy had a tears-inducing answer to her question.

Quickly regaining her bearing, she sat down at a table with the visitors and the translator. Suzy explains that it was hard to say how old the girls were due to the aforementioned malnourishment and “because they were in traditional dress, but I’d guess ten and eight.” The five of them drank tea and endured some awkward silence. Through the translator, the granddaughters asked about Suzy’s hometown, her Army job and living in America. When their questions had been answered, she says, her voice breaking slightly, “I told them about Camden. And they smiled really big.”

The soccer match lasted ninety minutes, but I like to think its impact in Afghanistan will be felt for lifetimes. Perhaps those girls were allowed to go to school after visiting with Suzy. Maybe they are now raising their own daughters to aim higher than past generations of Afghan women, and using their meeting with an American mother/soldier/soccer player as a shining example of Girl Power.

“Their visit was confirmation,” Suzy says, “that with the soccer match we truly did some good.”