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"Operation Play" scoring life-saving goals

Christy Hawking, 10, contributes to Tolleson Elementary School's donation of soccer balls for Djibouti children Jan. 31. Christy has already made a donation of 14 soccer balls to the schools collection box. The school hopes to collect at least one soccer ball per student to "Operation Play," donating more than 300 altogether. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Jonathan Pomeroy)

Christy Hawking, 10, contributes to Tolleson Elementary School's donation of soccer balls for Djibouti children Jan. 31. Christy has already made a donation of 14 soccer balls to the schools collection box. The school hopes to collect at least one soccer ball per student to "Operation Play," donating more than 300 altogether. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Jonathan Pomeroy)

An Army soldier, deployed to the Horn of Africa, inflates a soccer ball as part of “Operation Play.” Operation Play is designed to provide school children on the Horn of Africa with soccer balls and is being implemented by former East Carolina University soccer player, Lt. Col. Joe Atkins, 314th Mission Support Squadron commander.

An Army soldier, deployed to the Horn of Africa, inflates a soccer ball as part of “Operation Play.” Operation Play is designed to provide school children on the Horn of Africa with soccer balls and is being implemented by former East Carolina University soccer player, Lt. Col. Joe Atkins, 314th Mission Support Squadron commander.

A thankful child plays with a soccer ball she received from US service members through “Operation Play.”  Operation Play is designed to provide school children on the Horn of Africa with soccer balls and is being implemented by former East Carolina University soccer player, Lt. Col. Joe Atkins, 314th Mission Support Squadron commander.

A thankful child plays with a soccer ball she received from US service members through “Operation Play.” Operation Play is designed to provide school children on the Horn of Africa with soccer balls and is being implemented by former East Carolina University soccer player, Lt. Col. Joe Atkins, 314th Mission Support Squadron commander.

LITTLE ROCK AIR FORCE BASE, Ark. -- The 314th Mission Support Squadron commander wants to make a difference while deployed in support of the Global War on Terror by helping African children get desperately needed vaccinations, but he needs soccer balls to score that goal.

Lt. Col. Joe Atkins deployed to the Horn of Africa as a Director of Personnel and is spending his free time donating soccer balls to local children in schools through an effort recently started there, known as "Operation Play."

Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa works to prevent conflict, promote regional stability and protect Coalition interests in east Africa and Yemen through humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, consequence management, civic action programs to include medical and veterinary care, school and medical clinic construction and water development projects.

The major problem with giving children vaccinations was that they usually were scared of the military, not like the civilians in the United States, Colonel Atkins said. And that fear has meant that deployed medical personnel can not do their mission--to provide local children with life-saving vaccinations.

"When the military doctors are able to open a box, pump air into a soccer ball and hand them out, this gesture breaks down language and culture barriers," the colonel said.

So, Colonel Atkins reached out to local principals at Arnold Drive and Tolleson Elementary schools in Arkansas for new and used soccer balls.

"We're collecting money to send soccer balls over," said Jackie Smith, Arnold Drive principal. "If people want to help, they can bring in a check."

"I wanted to do something more for the people, especially the children," Colonel Atkins said. "The gesture is a small token that translates easily," stating that "it breaks down all barriers and provides the perception of peace."

"The soccer balls are a big hit here," he said in a telephone interview nearly 8,200 miles away from his home station. "The soccer balls help open doors and with these balls, it opens the children up to the vaccines."

Colonel Atkins is not new to the power of a soccer ball. He played soccer for East Carolina University in the mid-1980s and has started a pick-up league on base as well.

"A soccer ball is a universal recognition symbol," the Greenville, N.C., native said. "It breaks the tension; the soccer balls are a big, big hit."

"On a daily basis, we're spending a lot of time providing security for these people," he said. "The camp takes in refugees form across the region."

The Horn of Africa is strategically located near Middle Eastern oil fields and strategic shipping lanes, according to the Central Intelligence Agency's world fact book. US servicemen and women are deployed there in support of the Global War on Terror.

The soccer balls are given to schools in Djibouti, Kenya, Ethiopia, Seychelles, and Tanzania. Each class size is about 30 and they receive two balls per class.

Those interested in sending new or used soccer balls, air pumps or air pump needles can mail them to: {Chaplain's Office, CJTF-HOA, APO AE 09363.}

People can send any color and any size: 2, 3, 4 or 5 and Colonel Atkins recommends deflating the balls before sending.
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