One day early last year, Joshua Walters was a high school girls soccer coach in Tallahassee, Fla., preparing his team for a regional playoff game.
Just a couple of months later, in April, he was stationed in Afghanistan as a first lieutenant in the Florida National Guard, watching a girl die in his arms.
"It pushed me," said Walters, 27. "I went to my boss and said `I've got to do something.' I know soccer and that's where I thought I could relate with them."
He has related, effectively using the world's most popular game as a way to bridge cultural gaps by heading an effort to have playing fields made, conducting coaching courses for the Afghanistan youth and setting up adult games between locals and coalition forces.
The catchphrase attached to this year's National Soccer Coaches Association of America annual convention, taking place through today at the Baltimore Convention Center, is "One World, One Game, One Goal."
Walters personifies the theme.
Granted a leave of absence, Walters is here to accept an NSCAA Honorary All-America Award. On Thursday afternoon, he gave an inspiring presentation at the convention - Afghanistan Soccer: Victory is Only 90 Minutes Away - to share his life-changing experiences.
"Soccer has been a way to get out there and build relationships," he said. "Within three days of the U.S. forces coming through in their initial push, there was a coalition vs. locals game. To me, that was mind-boggling to think that within three days, that was the first thing they chose to do together. That's what the locals wanted to do."
In Thursday's presentation, Walters said Afghanistan is still very much a combat zone, but the country is much further along than Iraq when it comes to democracy (21 million of 28 million people registered to vote in the national election) and the Taliban presence is being driven away.
Currently stationed at the Bagram Air Base, Walters is mostly trying to reach Afghanistan's children.
Working through a translator, he directed the first NSCAA Regional Coaching Course in Afghanistan, where 36 Afghan coaches participated along with other members of the coalition forces.
"If we're going to make a difference, it's going to have to be through the youth," he said. "All the people have seen is decades and decades of war there. That's all they know. I really feel through the youth, we can push education, we can push leadership, and I've been able to use soccer as a tool for a lot of that."
At his first stop in Afghanistan, the town of Tarin Kowt, Walters and his unit were on a medical visit where a group of children gathered outside the facility and repeatedly asked for "Coach Josh."
"I came out and, through an interpreter, we started speaking to the kids, and they told us they knew where weapons were," he said. "It was the first time I can say soccer directly led to making Afghanistan a safer place."
Walters is working on bringing two Afghan youth teams - one boys and one girls - to the United States in March "to give them a chance to see the American culture and try to build leadership and ambition to bring back there," he said.