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Soccer-ball diplomacy earns trust of local Iraqis

16 Aug 2006 | Lance Cpl. Ray Lewis

A lot has changed in just a month for Marines here. 

Marines of I Company , 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment started patrolling this region nearly a month ago, only to be met with stares and a local population that was skeptical.  Now, they’re greeted with smiles.

Marines and sailors are making inroads with locals through daily foot patrols in the city.  They stop and talk, pass out candy and toys and show locals they’re here for them

“We want to let the Iraqi civilians know that we’re watching and we’re here to help,” said Cpl. David M. Frank, a 27-year-old squad leader from Hillsborough, N.J.

It wasn’t always this way.  Marines were initially viewed from a distance.  There wasn’t much of a presence in this area prior to the battalion’s arrival and locals didn’t dare approach Marines.

“When we first got here, they were a little bit surprised because that was the first time they saw Marines doing foot patrols on an everyday basis,” said Cpl. Brandon D. Shreves, a 22-year-old from Harrison, W.V. “Iraqis and their children would be at a distance.”

It’s different now. Iraqis seem to be more comfortable in day-to-day contact with Marines.

“Sometimes they wave first and kids would come out,” said Lance Cpl. Timothy M. Walsh, a 21-year-old assaultman from Winchester, N.H.

Walsh said he now carries soccer balls on nearly every patrol, a favorite gift for the children.  It’s a far cry from the usual combat load for an infantryman, but one that’s opening common ground between Marines and Iraqis.

“My wife wants a kid, so she’d be proud that I’m handing out soccer balls to these kids,” Walsh said.

Not only do kids come out to greet Marines, but adults do too.

“Nowadays, we have some of the women come out to speak to us,” explained Walsh, who speaks some Arabic.  “That’s rare.”

Marines now know, through observations, who to be suspicious of and who they can trust.  They learned the faces of those who aren’t responsible for attacks with improvised explosive devices or assault rifles.

“From the patrols that were done, we know these people aren’t the ones who plant IEDs or doing the small-arms attacks,” said Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class John S. Cope. “But hopefully they’ll be the ones to tell us the locations or if they see anybody planting anything.”

Otherwise, the Iraqis are starting to see the good Marines do.  Iraqis quickly gather to witness what Marines are doing when they stop a patrol to talk to locals.

“We were on a patrol one night when one Marine noticed that a guy’s arm was bandaged up at a market,” said Cope, a 27-year-old hospital corpsman from Westerville, Ohio.  “Everybody was gathered there.”

Cope tended to his wounds and sent him on his way.

“Later on, in another part of town, the interpreter said people had mentioned how good it was that we had treated that guy,” Cope added.

Their frequent patrols there have other benefits also.

“When insurgents see us on a daily basis, they’re a little more hesitant to do anything,” Shreves explained.

The patrols continue.  Marines gear up, rifles and grenades strapped to their body and extra soccer balls and bandages in hand.   Insurgents continue to run and locals, more and more each day, flock to Marines.