Only the US Army could manage to take a potentially good operation and turn it into an insulting effort of bureaucratic stupidity, putting our troops at risk for nothing. You may recall a while back we wrote about a neat grassroots effort to send soccer balls to kids in Iraq. Soccer is THE sport in Iraq with kids all over playing in dirt lots. While the worsening security situation has driven many children indoors lately, a few years ago things weren’t so dire. So the idea of handing out new soccer balls to the kids was a neat idea that might even generate some good will towards the American soldiers handing them out.

Unfortunately, in one instance it didn’t turned out that way. Salon has an article up about how one Army unit handled the distribution of donated soccer balls [Just watch the ad to get to the article – link appears in upper right corner] We have no way of knowing if they came from Little Feet, Big Goals, or some other benefactor and no matter who they came from, what happened once the balls got there was just sad to read about:

At Forward Operating Base Scunion, the camp’s official name, the lieutenant told Reppenhagen and company to pick up the load of balls from Forward Operating Base Warhorse, which was close by. They would then drive around the towns of Al-Hadid, Hib Hib and Kahlis and hand them out to the kids who often ran beside the Army Humvees and called out for candy, water or money.

After all, nothing is more popular in Iraq than soccer. "There are soccer fields everywhere," Reppenhagen said. "Mostly it is just dirt lots. They don’t have goal posts and so use stumps. Sometimes the kids play in the street. I swear, all they do all day long is play soccer."

So far so good, but you can guess what happens next…

At Forward Operating Base Warhorse, Reppenhagen and his fellow soldiers encountered a five-ton truck stacked with large cardboard boxes. They began to unload the truck and open the boxes. There were maybe 50 soccer balls in each box. But the balls had not been inflated. They were all flat. Reppenhagen scoured the boxes. No pumps. What was worse, nobody had bothered to pack the needles to inflate the balls.

Resourceful soldiers that they were, the men carried some of the balls to mechanics in the motor pool. "They tried to pump them up with tire pumps," Reppenhagen said. But the mechanics had the equipment to inflate Humvee tires, not soccer balls.

Frustrated, the soldiers asked their commanding officers what to do. None were sure. They kept calling their own superiors. Cassidy suggested that they order pumps and needles, which would arrive in about two weeks. The battalion colonel quickly tired of the whole discussion and said he wasn’t about to requisition soccer ball pumps. "He decided this was a waste of time," Cassidy said. "His thought was, ‘Iraqis should be grateful.’ Not, ‘They will be grateful’ — ‘They should be.’" Finally, the lieutenant commanded the troops to deliver the balls to the children. "He was pretty much like, ‘Shut up and hand out these soccer balls,’" Reppenhagen said.

Of course. Now whoever sent the balls over probably figured an army unit would have an air pump of some kind, but any coach knows you can NEVER find a needle when you need one so we keep 30 or so in our various bags and gear. So it’s hard to understand why nobody thought to include some ball needles. How clueless can you really be? A few readers at Salon were asking in the comments why, if soccer was so popular in Iraq, didn’t they have ball pumps? First, Iraq is in complete disarray, so you can’t expect families to worry about having a ball pump. Second, as any youth soccer coach will tell you, most kids don’t have pumps and never keep their balls inflated. That’s why we all carry ball pumps and 30 needles in our gear bag. I pump up at least one ball a week if not more.

So the soldiers followed orders and threw out hundreds of deflated soccer balls to kids who would LOVE to have a new ball, but most probably had no way to inflate them. So what happened to the balls?

When the Humvees began to retrace their route back to the base, the futility of the operation was becoming painfully clear. "Kids were wearing these soccer balls as hats," Reppenhagen said. "They were kicking them around. They were in trees. They were floating in canals. They were everywhere. There were so many soccer balls."

This is akin to driving around the US handing out hardwood logs and telling the kids ‘go carve yourself a bat!’

Granted – this is only one story from one Army unit. It happened a few years ago and hopefully they ordered a couple pumps the next time around. And my daughter wants a pony.

It’s shortsightedness like this that makes you cringe.