Daniel Merritt’s home away from home is the furthest of cries from where he grew up. Scorched by the sun, rife with poverty and battered by war, Qadisiya Province sits eighty miles south of Baghdad.
As a first lieutenant in a U.S. Army military-police unit, Daniel, and the forty-six men of his platoon, spends his days and many of his nights outside the wire, away from the relative safety of his fortified base camp. His charge is to train and work with the Iraqi police; patrol this Shiite stronghold, including its capital city of Diwaniya; and drive out insurgents and militia fighters.
He is only five-foot-nine and 175 pounds. But in combat apparel, the former Darien resident cuts a forbidding figure. Like most of the American soldiers, he is laden with 60 to 70 pounds of protective gear, no small burden in a place where the temperature often hits 120 degrees, but much welcomed should danger strike. He is armed with an M-4 carbine, complete with thirty-round magazine, grenade launcher and scope. He also carries a 9-mm Beretta pistol. If that’s not enough, he can summon arms of even greater might, from machine guns to rocket launchers. Not to mention his ever-growing supply of soccer balls.
Improbable as it sounds, the latter may be one of the more promising defenses Daniel and his men have from harm. And in the long run, it might serve America’s interests in Iraq better than even the most fearsome military hardware.
Daniel, who is twenty-seven, calls his program Operation Soccer Ball. Basically, it involves distributing soccer balls — hundreds of them so far — to Iraqi children. He is among an untold number of American soldiers who have seen a human need beyond their immediate mission and reached out to help. On their own initiative, in efforts big and small, troops have provided Iraqi citizens with everything from clothing to baby formula to soccer balls. And while Daniel’s program may not be the first of its kind, or even in name, it is already having a positive impact on both givers and receivers.
“This thing is simple to do,” Daniel says, in a telephone conversation from Iraq. “It’s cheap. It’s effective. It makes kids smile. And it really can save lives.”
It all started this spring. Daniel and his men were involved in a popular charitable program called Beanies for Baghdad, in which the soldiers gave out stuffed animals to kids in their area. One day they brought along some old soccer balls and gave them to the youngsters as well. Daniel had heard that the Iraqis were manic about soccer, but nothing prepared him for the unbridled glee he witnessed that day. The kids, as he describes the scene, “went ape” when given the balls.
Daniel was so taken by the response that he started calling and e-mailing family members in Connecticut and elsewhere, asking them to spread the word and send him all the soccer balls they could muster. One person e-mailed another, who e-mailed another. A website went up. Before long everyone from school kids to Jazzercize classes was rounding up soccer balls and shipping them to Daniel. Within a couple months, he had received 1,000 balls, with more coming and no end in sight.
It was an idea that everyone could get behind, no matter how they felt about the war. Forget politics. This was about doing something nice for kids who were living in hostile territory, as well as showing support for the troops. Such an effort can only foster goodwill between U.S. forces and everyday Iraqis. It could be the difference, for example, between citizens giving warning to the soldiers or allowing them to venture down a street where a roadside bomb awaits.
“It’s much more than handing out soccer balls,” writes Captain Eric M. Wigley, Daniel’s company commander in Iraq, in an e-mail response to New Canaan •Darien Magazine. “It’s an aspect of the larger solution: community policing. [Daniel] truly gets it, and his platoon and the police they partner with are extremely fortunate because he does.”
What the program spells for the more distant future is an open question. Perhaps Daniel has stumbled upon an improvement on that earthy adage about how to win a people’s hearts and minds: Maybe it is soccer balls that are the key. “Think about your own childhood,” says Peter Hawkins, a longtime Darien resident who coached Daniel in youth soccer. “Here you’ve got children in a war-torn zone. What effect might an act of kindness have on them, not just for today but for the rest of their lives? And in the same vein, how much is a harsh act going to stick with them? That’s a sobering thought, for good or for bad.”
On the ground in Iraq, it is uncertain who enjoys the giveaways more, Daniel or the children. When recounting how the youngsters respond to receiving the soccer balls, he sounds as exuberant as any of them: “Some kids will grab it and they’ll run, like, ‘Holy s—, I just got a soccer ball!’ They’ll run because they don’t want any of the other kids to take it from them, or they don’t want the bigger kids to jack ’em for their soccer ball, or they don’t want us to take it back, though we’re never going to take the soccer ball back.
“Some of them will freakin’ start crying. Some of them, they just light up like you’d think they would. Some will start playing immediately. Some will grab it, they’ll go hide it, then come back and try to get another one.”
Wordsworth famously wrote that the child is father of the man. And just as the poet never lost his thrill at the sight of a rainbow, Daniel never forgot the joys of laughing and running and booting a soccer ball on Darien’s playing fields. The children he sees in Iraq score their goals on parched dirt, not manicured grass or synthetic turf. Still, he catches a glimpse of himself whenever he watches them.
“I grew up with everything,” Daniel says. “These kids are growing up with nothing. But they are like I was in the sense that they just want to have a good time. They want to play soccer with their buddies. They want to drink soda pop. They want to sit and smile. They want to grow up.”
When Daniel came up with his soccer-ball idea, he sent an e-mail to his mother that gave her pause. In explaining his reasoning, he wrote that he thought soccer was a good distraction for the Iraqi children, who lived in an environment thick with some pretty scary, life-and-death stuff.
Something in what Daniel wrote, Gloria Ostrow says, carried her back to her son’s childhood: “When he talked about Operation Soccer Ball in that first letter, he said, ‘I know for whatever time they are actually out there playing, it makes what’s really going on around them a little less intense.’
“That really mattered to him, that those kids could lose themselves for a little while in soccer and kind of pretend that all this other stuff wasn’t really happening. I thought that was a profound statement. For me, it was like, ‘Okay, so he really was using soccer the same way when he was a kid,’ because for whatever time he was out there he didn’t have to think about anything else that was going on around him.”
In those days the family lived in Stamford, but Daniel attended what was then the Plumfield School (now Pear Tree Point School) in Darien and found his way into the town’s youth soccer league and, eventually, its all-star travel team.
Daniel was an intelligent kid, but being a student wasn’t his forte, says his mother, who works as a psychiatric nurse. He was also on the small side and didn’t grow much until his senior year in high school. Nor did it help that his parents’ marriage was crumbling. When Daniel was fourteen, his folks divorced, which had an unmooring effect on both him and his brother, Tyler, who is three years younger. (Daniel also has a sister, Zoe, age sixteen, and a stepsister from his father’s first marriage, Christy, thirty-one.)
“Soccer was something that helped him really be connected and feel good,” Gloria says. “It was someplace he could shine.”
Because Daniel kicked best with his left foot, he played either left halfback or left wing. Quick and athletic, he could hold his own with any of the kids and was better than many. In time he would be chosen for a state travel team as well.
Come ninth grade, however, Daniel set soccer aside. With Gloria’s remarriage and his father’s setbacks in his magazine publishing business, life changed. Living in Darien now with his mother, her new husband and Daniel’s siblings, the boy became increasingly hard to handle. Most days just getting him to show up at Darien High School was a victory.
For Daniel, life had become a whirl of teenage partying, excessive speed in cars and on motorcycles, and one splashdown after another into hot water. “Pretty much all the things you tell people not to do is what we would do,” says his brother Tyler. “If someone said don’t jump off that bridge, we’d jump off the bridge. If someone said you won’t do a wheelie past the cops and lose ’em, we’d do that.”
“Wild is an understatement of great proportion when it comes to Daniel,” adds his father, who is also named Daniel. “There is hardly anything he didn’t do or try.”
To top it off, the boy showed no real interest in college. He wanted to join the army. That’s when Gloria, who as an undergraduate at the University of Connecticut had protested against the Vietnam War, finally lost it.
Upon learning that a recruiter had spoken to Daniel at school, she charged down to the army office in Stamford and found the man. Not very big herself, Gloria got on her toes and into the recruiter’s face and demanded that he back off. Daniel was a vulnerable, confused kid, she barked, and he was brainwashing him. Recalling the incident years later, Daniel would chuckle about his mother’s uncharacteristic behavior. “My mom pretty much told the recruiter that she would kill him,” he says. “I think she said it exactly that way: Stay away from my son or I will kill you.”
Knowing this chapter from the family’s past, it is hard not to smile today on seeing Gloria’s car in the garage of her home in Southbury. The gold-colored Nissan Altima — as well as Daniel’s step-father’s Honda — is all but festooned with supportive military signage, from the requisite yellow-ribbon decal to a license-plate frame identifying her as an “Army Mom.” (Other stickers cheer her daughter’s equestrian activities and the family’s two vizslas. There is also one for West Point, from which Tyler graduated two years ago. An Apache helicopter pilot, he was expected to arrive in Iraq in October.)
Truth be told, Daniel was going to do what he wanted to do. So when he enlisted in 2000, one year out of high school, Gloria took the news more or less stoically. Her concern had always been for his safety. And during his hitch in Germany, barroom brawls aside, Daniel did stay out of harm’s way. His mother, in time, was duly impressed as the military truly changed her son from a high-energy, directionless kid to a focused, responsible adult.
He left the army when his three years were up. Ever competitive with Tyler, who by now was at the military academy, Daniel would get his commission at Valley Forge Military College (where he returned to playing soccer and was even named captain of the school’s team), then finish his undergraduate studies at UConn–Stamford. He went back on active duty last year, and in March, after incessantly pestering his superiors, was finally granted his wish of deployment to Iraq.
Without question, Daniel is a Hoo-ah type of guy. But it comes with an underlying sensitivity and compassion. (His teenage sister, Zoe, calls him “the biggest girl-boy you’ll ever meet.”) He misses home. When he gets back, his plan is to make a beeline for pizza and beer at the Colony Grill in Stamford, catch up with his longtime pals and finally make a go of his on-off-on relationship with a woman in New York whom he cares about.
At the same time, he loves the army. He believes in his mission. He declares the soldiers in Iraq “the best guys, the best Americans we’ve got.” He’s full of praise for everyone from his commander to the MPs in his platoon. And he is determined to bring each of his men home safely when his company returns stateside early next year.
God willing. Four days after touching down in Iraq, Daniel was in a convoy when the truck right behind his was struck by a bomb. No one was seriously hurt, but Daniel suddenly saw his situation in high-def clarity. “That was a big wake-up call, like, hey, I’m not in freakin’ Darien anymore,” he says. “This was a whole different ballgame.”
Since his arrival in Iraq, everyone in his family has had stark moments of realization — reminders of the obvious, really — that Daniel is in one very dangerous place. His stepfather, Cary Ostrow, says that even preparing a care package for Daniel can be unsettling. On one hand, there are the items that one might send to a youngster who is away from home, such as Sour Patch Kids candies and DVDs. On the other hand, there are earplugs to muffle the bomb blasts and special cut-resistant Kevlar gloves that Daniel requested. “It’s funny and disturbing at the same time,” Cary says. “Half are like a kid’s summer camp stuff and half are for this person out there in harm’s way.”
Daniel’s natural father, who lives in Stamford, tells of his son calling to wish him a happy Father’s Day when they were interrupted by a series of explosions on Daniel’s end of the line. Taking an educated guess at what was happening, the father began to cry. Then his son came back on the phone. “Sorry, Dad,” he said. “We had some incoming.”
Before Daniel left for Iraq, he and his mother had a painful but necessary conversation about his wishes should the worst happen. And not long ago, his father received an e-mail from Daniel assuring him that despite the risks, he knew he was doing the right thing, that he was making a difference in Iraq. As the elder Merritt remembers it, Daniel wrote: “Dad, I don’t know sometimes whether I’ll wake up in the morning, but when I do wake up, I feel good.”
Before Daniel and his men from the 511th Military Police Company give out soccer balls, Daniel always warns them to avoid tossing the balls into the street. “Because these kids will run in front of a freight train to get a soccer ball,” he says.
Sometimes the soldiers go to schools to distribute balls. Other times it’s different parts of a city or other places where their Iraqi police counterparts know children will be. The night before, Daniel will take a box of fifty balls, deflated before being shipped, and hand it over to whoever is on duty in the operations center, manning the phones. Daniel instructs him to inflate the balls over the course of his shift. Then he returns to his trailer, listens to some Jack Johnson tunes and pumps up a few himself.
When the MPs head out, Daniel gives each of his gunners on the trucks some balls. After patrolling they set up someplace and start dishing them out.
Word has begun to spread about the soccer balls, so when the MPs come into sight, youngsters often come running. “Whenever they see our trucks, they know there’s a good chance that a soccer ball’s going to come flying out,” Daniel says, “and they love it.”
Sometimes Daniel and company, still in full ballistic armor, will take a few minutes to play with the kids. “Many children fear soldiers because they have never interacted with them before,” writes Captain Wigley. “We look tough, kitted up, carrying guns. But in the street, kicking a ball around, smiling and laughing along, the human side shines through.”
Daniel expects Operation Soccer Ball to keep growing. Working with the Iraqi police, he hopes to provide uniforms and equipment and sponsor some youth teams. When he leaves Iraq, he expects to pass the program on to his MP successor or a willing company commander.
For now, the soccer balls keep rolling in. Last spring, students at Middlesex Middle School in Darien put on a donation drive. This summer, Darien, Fairfield County and state soccer associations gave 1,000 balls, among other items, thanks to the efforts of Tim Blake, one of Daniel’s former coaches. And at a game on September 11, fans of the New England Revolution professional soccer team contributed 400 more.
When asked if he has received any good messages along with the many donations, Daniel says yes, that one of his cousins had written a few words that meant a lot. Scrawled across one of the soccer balls, she summed up the sentiments of the officer’s large extended family, his friends at home … and perhaps some smiling kids on the streets of Iraq. “We love you, Danny,” she wrote.
Learn more about 1st. Lt. Merritt’s soccer-ball program at operationsoccerball.org.