Iraqi children are getting a kick out of the Rural/Metro Fire Department's fundraiser.
When Fire Chief Tom Brandhuber, who is currently serving in Iraq as a fire chief for the Air Force Reserve, contacted his firefighters back home in Tucson and asked them to collect new and used soccer balls for children in Iraq, the department found the request to be "a no-brainer."
"If he asks us to do something to support the troops, we'll do it to support the troops and to support him," said Anne-Marie Braswell, public relations manager for Rural/Metro Fire Department.
Brandhuber's request came after his introduction to Operation Soccer Ball. Operation Soccer Ball was begun around five years ago by Capt. Daniel Merritt, who saw that soccer could give American forces and the people of Iraq a chance to interact, build positive relationships, and create lifetime memories upon common ground.
"My platoon and I have constant interaction with the citizens of Iraq," said Merritt, "a proud people who want the same things for their kids as we do for ours. We have many roles in Iraq, and one of the biggest is to rebuild this country and help its people get back on their feet.
"Most of the citizens living in this area are so poor they don't have many of the daily amenities we take for granted. While they rebuild their country, the one constant source of enjoyment, of hope, is soccer. When they play soccer it consumes them, it builds them into a team, it keeps them out of trouble, it makes them forget how hard their life can be and, most of all, it gives them hope for a better tomorrow; a hope all Americans should help to build."
Brandhuber and three other Rural/Metro firefighters – Mike Grassell, Andrew Madison and Grant Reed – deployed at the end of April. Rural/Metro's soccer ball fundraiser began in June and goes until October, when Brandhuber is expected to return.
In total, Operation Soccer Ball has collected and shipped more than 8,000 balls to Iraq. Rural/Metro plans to send off its first shipment of more than 50 new and used soccer balls later this week.
The majority of the balls came from the general public. "Which makes it even nicer," said Braswell. "We publicized it and the public came through. For us it's also nice because we're first responders on a local level and our troops are first responders on a national level in a more dangerous situation. It's a way for us to show gratitude."
The balls will be deflated, then shipped. Air pumps have also been donated for shipment with the soccer balls. Volunteers, including CDO youth players, plan to assist in deflating and shipping the balls.
In Brandhuber's absence, Deputy Chief James Stoltenberg has taken the place of acting chief.
"His family is anxious for him to come home," said Braswell. Brandhuber has a wife, Tamara, and four daughters. "As are we. His biological children and 185 firefighter children are ready and waiting for him to come home."
In the meantime, the fire department continues to do what it can to show support for its chief and the American troops by collecting soccer balls. Soccer balls can be dropped off at Rural/Metro Fire Department at 490 W. Magee Road until Oct. 1. For more information, call 219-2069.