RAWAH, Iraq -- Some people would agree that if a sport had to be chosen which embodied freedom of oppression and represented overcoming fear of insurgency in order to continue a normal life, soccer might be the number one choice. Football, basketball and wrestling would probably be lucky enough to make the top five also.
In a small town of over 20,000 people which overlooks the Euphrates River, a volleyball game marked the end of an era of fear, and the beginning of freedom for the villagers and Marines who call Rawah, Iraq their home. Iraqi civilians showed up in the dozens for the first time in months, if not years according to a local interpreter, to cheer on their local team against the Marines.
On the evening of June 16, 2007, Cpl. Christopher J. Clark, a light armored vehicle gunner with Company D, 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, Regimental Combat Team 2, and several of the Marines in his company started a volleyball game with some of the city’s local civilians.
“It was a great experience, we knew we were safe, so we just went out there to gain their trust and have fun,” said Clark, a Livermore, Calif., native. “We want the locals to see we aren’t faceless people who invade with no hearts, we are regular guys, just like them.”
According to the players, the games gathered nearly 100 civilian spectators around the court to watch as the Marines, who had taken off all their gear for the occasion, tried to keep up with the more experienced locals.
“We had over a platoon on watch total,” said Gunnery Sgt. William J. Gwaltney, the company gunnery sergeant. “We had some guys up in over watch positions, we had others roaming around, a complete cordon, plus two LAVs nearby. And the court was one of the most defensible positions around, I think we looked at nearly a dozen different volleyball courts, but the position of this one just couldn’t have been better.”
The court was set on a small flat in the side of a bowl-like valley, cradled next to the river on the eastern edge of the city. Roads and alleys crisscrossed the high ground surrounding the valley, and the court was lit by several street lights.
“We were on patrol one night, and I just decided to stop and talk to the guys we saw playing ball,” said 1st Lt. Josh L. Schneider, a platoon commander with the company. “They said they always played at the same time, so I figured why not join them sometime. After our company and battalion commanders approved it, we went out, secured the sight, and had some fun.”
The Marines all agreed the impact on the populace was staggering once word got out of the game.
“Someone said there were over 100 people there watching, plus the ones we couldn’t see on the hills and in the nearby houses. The number one thing we have done since I’ve been here is improve public relations with the citizens of this city. We make ourselves personable, and things like this help show we have common interests, and we really are human,” said Gwaltney, a Kenosha, Wis., native.
Gwaltney went on to say the event’s success was due to human nature. He said sports and competition are the things anyone, anywhere, from any culture have in common and can enjoy and understand.
“I think this shows the populace we aren’t afraid of the bad guys, and they shouldn’t be either,” said Schneider, a Long Island, N.Y., native. “People need to know we have taken a town where insurgency ran rampant, and people were afraid to leave their houses, and turned it to the point where we can have guys in the open having fun and laughing while being surrounded by locals doing the same thing. Not one person was thinking, ‘What if...,’”
The Marines lost three of four games, to the loud cheers of the spectators, but by the reactions of the group you would think they had shut out the other team.
“I didn’t feel bad at all,” Clark said. “Those guys are out there every night for hours. We had fun, they had fun, and we even won a game, all in all I would say it was a huge success.”
At the end of the game, Gwaltney was jokingly awarded both the titles ‘Most Valuable Player’ and ‘Ball Hog.’
Some of the Marines said they look forward to playing again, and even getting the local Iraqi Police involved in the festivities.
“Next time, who knows, we may even put a few IPs on our side of the court. It might even improve our game,” said Schneider. “We are starting to transition control over to the Iraqi side of the house and showing the civilians who we really are. The more involved we get in their lives, the easier it will be for them to continue once we are gone.”