...It seemed crazy. "We were so pissed," said Reppenhagen. But orders are orders. When you are told to hand out flat soccer balls, you hand out flat soccer balls. So the soldiers who served in 2nd Battalion, 63rd Armored Regiment piled the flat soccer balls into their Humvees. Driving through the Sunni Triangle's war-torn towns, they tossed the deflated balls to children, who crowded the sides of the roads, running beside the canals and lush greenery that lined the banks of the Diyala River. "Kids were swarming us," Reppenhagen said. "We went to a couple of schools and delivered stacks of them. Everybody we saw got a flat soccer ball."
Which, of course, the kids quickly figured out. Pretty soon, Reppenhagen recalled, "They were like, 'What are you doing? What are we supposed to do with this?" 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."...
A spokesman for the 1st Infantry Division, Lt. Col. Christian T. Kubik, said Reppenhagen's battalion commander does not recall the soccer ball operation. In an e-mail, he took issue with the characterization of soldiers blindly following orders when they handed out the deflated balls.
"America is filled with veterans who know that this comic view of soldiers dumbly following orders is completely without basis and almost laughable in its propagation of stereotype," Kubik wrote. "Soldiers are Americans, not automatons." He added: "To focus on the air in the balls, or lack thereof, undermines the American spirit of generosity and completely misses the point of giving."
Reppenhagen said he certainly knows what he and his platoon got when they drove to the base: The Iraqi kids were expressing their hearts and minds with rocks and stones. "On the way back, kids were throwing rocks at us," he said. "I assumed it was because we gave them deflated soccer balls. Maybe if we had given them inflated soccer balls, they would have been out playing soccer."