ROGACICE, Kosovo - His brown eyes dance with mischief as he kicks the ball in the air. His face lights up as only a child’s does when the spotlight is on. The game is simple but fun enough to make friends and conquer language barriers.
Soldiers from the Liaison Monitoring Team, 1st Battalion, 118th Infantry Division are building bonds with communities in Kosovo by playing soccer with local residents.
Sgt. Wesley H. Hooks is one of the LMT’s deployed with the 118th currently working as part of Multinational Battle Group-East. He is responsible for knowing the concerns and issues in his designated towns.
“Each team has their own section, and we go out and we talk to the key leaders in those sectors,” said Hooks. “We talk to the locals, we engage in conversations with them to build rapport and trust.”
Hooks, a native of Lake View, S.C., said that the LMT’s cannot do their job without having a solid foundation.
“If people trust us, then they will open up more, and tell us what is going on, which helps us help them,” he said. “This is our job. If they don’t trust us, if they don’t like us, then they will block us out completely, and no progress will be made, which has happened before.”
Spc. Khamsing S. Vang, an LMT from York, S.C., looks around at the players in the Rogacica Stadium. He said that they played a neighboring town a few weeks ago, and the soldiers wanted to give that opportunity to everyone.
“We wanted to let them know that we aren’t here just to work and be serious all the time, we want to have fun,”said Vang. “We didn’t want it to seem like we were playing favorites so we opened it up to everyone. These guys set it up, scheduled it, so here we are.”
While the adults swapped in and out during the game as needed, high fives and laughter echoed throughout the indoor field. A crowd of 15-20 local neighborhood children of all ages gathered to watch.
Some played outside showing each other tricks, while inside they cheered and yelled their support. One of the boys kicks a soccer ball to the sky, catches it between his shoulder blades, balances it then tosses it back up. Vang sat today’s game out, saying he wanted to learn from the kids.
“The key to building those bonds, is really, the kids,” he said. “They are smart, but hurt easily. I mean with the adults, if you tell them you will be out next week and something happens and you can’t get out there, they understand, but if you tell the kids you will be there and you can’t make it, and they will be upset.”
Vang said that working with the kids teaches patience, they wait to see how you react to things, and they are the first ones to recognize the true intent. Children just know more, he said. It is not enough to talk to the adults, you have to gain the trust of the children. Adults don’t always admit when they need something, but children don’t have that same level of pride.
“They wait for you to show them that you really want to help them, be a voice for them,” he said. “Everyone here is really nice. So just show the people respect, show the kids respect.”
The boy’s ball trick requires coordination, just like the LMTs need the same skills for effective communication.
Once the teams are able to gather information from their conversations, they go back to their leadership and discuss what they have learned. The people in charge can determine if further information is needed or if the next step is to contact the Kosovo Force Commander or other institutions to correct the issue, said Vang.
Hooks, who deployed to Iraq in 2009 as an LMT, said he was surprised by the environment here.
“In certain places, the economy, the people it is all really well-rounded,” he said. “I have been to a few of the towns, and I have been most impressed by the quality of education. The towns where we have been able to visit the schools, the teachers there, with what they have for supplies, they are doing great things. For what they have, they do an outstanding job.”
Hooks looked around at the kids watching the game, laughing and playing with the soldiers nearby.
In soccer, a player cannot pass the ball off without communicating with his teammate. A failed attempt means an opportunity for the other team to move into a scoring position. In Kosovo, the LMTs need to have those communication channels so progress is not disrupted. Being able to have fun and build those bonds help both sides talk more effectively and prevent that potential communication breakdown.
“We want to be able to leave here and know that we made some sort of a difference, that we made things better,” said Hooks. “We are spending nearly a year here, and we want it to be worth something.”
This work, Soldiers build relationships by hard work and fun, by SSG Angela Parady, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.