Reporter's Notebook: Boys will be boys
October 29, 2007
MOSUL, Iraq — A small team of soldiers from Company D, 2nd Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment, from Fort Bliss, Texas, headed out Friday morning to accompany a couple of civil affairs soldiers as they inspected repairs at a local high school.
The school sat in the shadow of an ancient hilltop mosque rumored to hold the bones of the Biblical prophet Jonah. The school had been heavily damaged May 16 when an insurgent tried to drive a car packed full of explosives into an adjacent police station.
As the soldiers from Company D arrived at the school, a large explosion a few blocks away rocked the neighborhood and there was a second explosion a few minutes later. A report came over the radio that an insurgent car bomb had struck an Iraqi police checkpoint. Sirens wailed and sporadic gunfire broke out as Iraqi police rushed to the scene.
Inside the school, 1st Lt. Andrew Kochli, 24, of Culpepper, Va., said, “I’m just waiting now on the call to respond.”
But the call never came. Instead, the civil affairs assessment team continued to check out the repairs.
In a field outside the school, more than two dozen Iraqi boys were playing soccer. They seemed unfazed by the blasts.
An Iraqi boy accompanied his father, the watchman, as he led the soldiers around the school. Kochli asked the boy how old he was and if he went to school there. The boy said he was 14 years old, but had dropped out.
“I don’t like school,” he said. “I don’t like reading and writing.”
Kochli asked the watchman’s son what he planned to do. The boy said he planned to become a metalsmith, like his father.
“If you were my kid, I’d kick your butt for dropping out of school,” I told the boy.
The watchman’s son smiled, and said that his father had beaten him for dropping out. Then he asked if I had kids. No, I told him.
“Then how are you going to kick anyone in the butt if you don’t have kids?” the watchman’s son said, speaking through an interpreter.
The kid had a point. But I had plenty of nephews and nieces, I told him. And if any of them dropped out, they’d definitely get a size 10½ right square in the behind.
The watchman’s son asked Kochli if he would give him a soccer ball.
“I’ll give you a soccer ball if you go back to school,” Kochli told him.
“If you give me a ball, I’ll go back to school tomorrow,” the watchman’s son said.
“Well, we’ll see what we can do,” Kochli said.
We went back outside. In the courtyard, a couple of soldiers were kicking a soccer ball back and forth with a half-dozen Iraqi boys. When the boys saw us coming, they ran outside the wall, but soon came back.
In the dirt field across from the school, the soccer game continued. Some of the boys wore jerseys with the names and numbers of famous players on the back. A middle-aged Iraqi man acted as both coach and referee.
Kochli motioned at the watchman’s son. “He says he used to go to school here, but he quit. He’s either going to be an insurgent or an IP (Iraqi police) or both.”
Kochli and the other two soldiers laughed. The watchman’s son laughed, too.
Somewhere nearby, a huge fusillade of Iraqi police gunfire erupted. The kids on the soccer field ignored it and kept playing.
The assessment complete, we headed out of the school and down a trash-strewn path toward the Humvees. The watchman’s son and a group of the kids followed.
“Mistah, mistah, give me ball,” they called behind us. One kid pointed at my watch, and asked if I’d give it to him. Another tugged at my sleeve. “Give me ball,” he said.
I pointed at Kochli and the other soldiers. “Talk to them,” I said.
One of the soldiers pulled a couple of soccer balls and bike helmets out of the trunk of one of the Humvees. He tossed the soccer balls to the kids. The ones who got a ball were immediately set upon by the others.
Another soldier pulled a big box out of another Humvee and walked back up toward the soccer field. By this time, the kids on the field saw what was happening and came running, shouting at the Americans.
Charlie, an Iraqi interpreter, sat the box down and opened it. He began handing out shoes and small Iraqi flags. The boys crushed upon each other, each of them trying to get a pair of shoes or a flag.
I was shooting pictures. A kid ran past me, clutching a pair of shoes and a plastic flag. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a wide grin on his face.
“Thank you, mistah,” he said, as he ran past. “I love you.”